Alan Sharp carries a pumpkin from a field at his farm, Sharp's… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
It was the first time Kai D'Angelo had ever picked a pumpkin, and the 4-year-old knew just what he was looking for.
As he ran to hop onto a cow train ride at Clark's Elioak Farm in Ellicott City this week, he said his pumpkin would be a small one, and orange. Kai and his father planned to carve the pumpkin into a jack-o'-lantern for the front porch of their Columbia house. His mother said she was happy they had something fun to do together as they roamed over the farm.
"He is fascinated with tractors and farms and farm equipment," said Jennifer D'Angelo.
As October begins, Howard County's farms are opening their gates and inviting the public to come and select a pumpkin for front porch decorating, jack-o'-lantern carving and pie baking.
And with corn mazes, petting zoos, scarecrow stuffing and hayrides, the farms offer plenty of other activities for families.
"You're really not buying a pumpkin, you're buying an outing," said Chuck Sharp, a farmer who grows 20 acres of pumpkins at Sharp's at Waterford Farm in western Howard County.
He sells both decorative pumpkins and varieties that are better for eating. In addition to selling to customers at the farm, he offers pumpkins to wholesalers and sells to the Helmand, an Afghan restaurant in Baltimore.
"I tell people when they have good weather and are looking for something to do, that's the time they need to visit the farm," Sharp said.
It rained just enough in Howard County this year to help this year's pumpkin crop flourish, despite drought conditions in other parts of the state.
Excessive heat could have hurt the crop, but Howard was fortunate to get timely rains, according to Jon Traunfield, a fruit and vegetable specialist with the University of Maryland Extension's Home and Garden Information Center.
"Pumpkins grow really well in Maryland," Traunfield said. "I think it's a pretty good cash crop for a lot of farmers."
Traunfield advises home gardeners through the free Home and Garden Information Center, but he said few opt to grow their own pumpkins. One pumpkin vine can take up a 10-foot-by-10-foot space, and for some people, that's as big as their entire garden. For those who do want to grow their own pumpkins, he provides advice on how to prune the sprawling plants, as well on different varieties, how much space they require and when to fertilize plants.
The pumpkin plants that do best, he said, are irrigated, but that is not required.
It's more common for home gardeners to grow winter squashes, Traunfield said. Those squashes, like butternut, acorn and hubbard, are also grown and sold at local farms.
"We personally, on this farm, seemed to always get a rain when we needed it," said Martha Clark, owner of Clark's Elioak Farm. "Statistically, we were about 6 inches short of rain, but for us in this area, we'd get a nice little rain in the evening, kind of just when things looked like they were starting to get dry."
That's different from last year, Clark said, when the combination of drought in the beginning of the season and rainstorms later resulted in a small crop. They had to import pumpkins from Ohio and North Carolina last year in order to meet demand. But this year, she expects that most, if not all, of the 30,000 to 35,000 pumpkins sold at the farm will have come from local farms.
Clark said the farm's crop of the smaller pumpkins that children prefer look really nice this year. Picking a pumpkin off of the vine is the freshest option, she and other farmers said.
"You want one with a nice, strong stem and a nice, firm body," Clark said.
Jen Poston, a partner at TLV Tree Farm, said the pumpkins grown there started turning color two to three weeks earlier than usual because of the dry, hot weather.
TLV is opening for the season Oct. 6; it caters to school groups during the week and families on the weekends. It's a lot of work to get the farm ready, Poston said, but it's worth it when she sees children having fun and taking home memories, along with their pumpkins.
"It's really heartfelt, and it's a nice feeling being able to share something that we experience every day that they don't," Poston said.
Local pumpkin farms
Clark's Elioak Farm: 10500 Clarksville Pike, Ellicott City. Phone: 410-730-4049. Open for pumpkin picking through Nov. 6, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The farm offers a petting zoo, hayrides, pony rides, a hay bale maze and other attractions for children. "Pumpkin chucking" will be held the first weekend of November.
Larriland Farm: 2415 Woodbine Road, Woodbine. Phone: 301-854-6100. Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The farm offers hayrides, a straw maze and a "boo barn" for children. Pick your own crops, including pumpkins, apples and fall vegetables.
Sharp's at Waterford Farm: 4003 Jennings Chapel Road, Brookeville. Phone: 301-854-6275. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every weekend through Nov. 4. They offer free hayrides, scarecrow-making and an educational maze. This year, part of the maze is made of cotton plants and teaches children about growing cotton.
TLV Tree Farm: 15155 Triadelphia Mill Road, Glenelg. Phone: 410-489-4460. Open weekends after Oct. 6, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. They offer rubber-duck races, a corn maze, hayrides, a hay maze and a scarecrow workshop.