Pumpkins with a purpose

The popular squash comes in varieties ideal for decorating, eating and smashing

In The Garden

October 27, 2002|By Nancy Taylor Robson | By Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Pumpkins invariably conjure images of Ichabod Crane's run-in with the Headless Horseman (a romantic rival with a pumpkin for a head) and Cinderella, whose coach-and-six reverted to pumpkin-and-mice at an inopportune moment. (Good fairy godmothers are so hard to find.)

While pumpkins have long been an integral part of autumn decorations, Thanksgiving feasts and children's stories, in recent years, pumpkin sales have exploded.

"It's the second-largest-selling crop, next to sweet corn," says Mark Willis, vegetable product development manager at Harris Seeds in Rochester, N.Y.

Pumpkins dot farm fields, rise in mountains at garden centers, sit in artful pyramids at produce stands, and even fly through the air in "punkin-chunkin" contests (which involve bizarre catapults and lots of open space for unobstructed splatting). While some pumpkins become compost and others dessert, most become decoration.

"Increased urbanization is probably why people try to bring a little rural place to decorate the outside of their non-rural homes," says Rob Johnston Jr., founder of Johnny's Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine.

There are now about 200 pumpkin varieties, ranging from 3-inch miniatures to behemoths nearly the size of a VW bug. Although some are heirloom varieties (like tannish 'Long Island Cheese' and ghostly 'Valenciano'), many are hybrids that were created by botanists and seed companies. One such hybrid is the recently introduced 'Pump-ke-mon,' a palm-sized white pumpkin with yellow stripes and speckles from Harris Seeds that's a cross between a pumpkin and a squash. 'Howden,' hybridized in the early 1970s, is now one of the top-selling farm-grown varieties.

" 'Howden' and 'Howden Biggie' [a larger version] produce dependable, sturdy pumpkins that are really good for carving and for decoration," says Willis.

Match pumpkin to its use

Though Native Americans used pumpkins for everything from snack food to woven mats to medicine (roasted seeds were used to expel tapeworms), today's pumpkins are more specialized. Green-stenciled 'Kakai' is grown almost exclusively for seeds.

"In Austria, they use the seeds, which are delicious, for eating and for oil," says Johnston.

Tall-sided 'Howden,' while good for carving, decoration and chunkin', has all the culinary appeal of stringy wallpaper paste. The best cooking pumpkins are generally small (under 10 pounds) and smooth-fleshed with a high sugar content. For example, the sweet 4-pound 'Baby Pam' makes superb pies, breads, muffins and soups.

For earthy natural decorations, choose from a variety of pumpkin sizes, shapes and even colors. 'Lumina' is white, 'Jarrahdale' is blue-gray, and 'Rouge vif d'estampes,' aka 'Fairytale' or 'Cinderella' pumpkin, is bright red-orange. The miniature varieties like 'Jack-Be-Little Munchkin,' 'Pump-ke-mon,' 'Wee-B-Little' and 'Baby Boo,' which is white, all work well in a tabletop arrangement of bright leaves, evergreens, fruits (lemon and pomegranate are good contrasts) and vegetables. Some of the minis are also great for eating. Two-pound 'Baby Bear,' which looks like a Honey I Shrunk the Kids edition of the traditional shape, is delicious stuffed with cranberries, apples, nuts, spices and a dash of cider and baked for either a side dish with pork or fowl, or a dessert with ice cream or custard sauce.

With determination and a sharp knife, you can carve almost any pumpkin, though ones like 'Racer,' whose flesh is strong but not impenetrable, make better candidates than the tougher-skinned varieties like 'Little Ironsides,' which is an orange cannon ball (but keeps forever). 'Orange Smoothie,' 'Wee-B-Little,' 'Hybrid Pam,' 'Spooktacular,' 'Snack Jack,' 'Spookie' and 'Oz' all offer good canvases for the pumpkin painters in your crowd.

They take up space

A member of the cucurbit family, which includes squash and gourds, pumpkins are generally not hard to grow, though some varieties are susceptible to viral diseases that cause green spots, furry stems and the ultimate collapse of fruits. (Check for disease resistance when planting.) But most are relatively straightforward.

"They need as much sun as you can give them, and you need to feed them like crazy," observes Johnston.

The main problem for the home gardener is that pumpkins are space-hogs.

Giant pumpkins need about 50 square feet per plant (and 50 gallons of water a week). For home gardeners the best choice is a semi-bush variety (for example, 'Wee-B-Little,' 'Orange Smoothie' and 'Racer') or a variety like 'Baby Bear,' an All-American Selections winner that sets eight 1 1/2 -to-2 1/2 -pound fruits per vine and is good for baking, roasted seeds and decoration.


Harris Seeds

355 Paul Road

P.O. Box 24966

Rochester, NY 14624-0966



Henry Field's Seed & Nursery Co.

P.O. Box 600

Shenandoah, Iowa 51602-0001



Johnny's Selected Seeds

184 Foss Hill Road

Albion, Maine 04910-9731



Seeds of Change

P.O. Box 15700

Santa Fe, NM 87506-5700



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