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What’s in Season in October? Pumpkins (of course)!

PumpkinsPumpkins and squash are believed to have originated in the ancient Americas. These early pumpkins were not the traditional round orange upright Jack-O-Lantern fruit we think of today when you hear the word pumpkin. They were a crooked neck variety, which stored well. Archeologists have determined that variations of squash and pumpkins were cultivated along river and creek banks along with sunflowers and beans. This took place long before the emergence of maize (corn). After maize was introduced, ancient farmers learned to grow squash with maize and beans using the “Three Sisters” tradition.[1]

Thinking about growing pumpkins on your homestead?

Planting

I think one of the most surprising and frustrating things about growing pumpkins I learned early (though not early enough) in my gardening career, is that pumpkins should be planted in the spring! Seems obvious to me now, but thinking of carving pumpkins in spring was a strange adjustment for me.

Pumpkins appreciate soil well supplied with organic matter. Mulching helps to control weeds that would be difficult to hoe out from the spreading vines. Don’t hurry to plant them. What you want is a well-developed storage crop, not a quick harvest. Planting at the end of May allows plenty of time in most areas.[2] Start pumpkins with a generous shovelful of compost or well-rotted manure in each hill. When the plant starts to develop vines, anticipate the squash borer by firming two or three shovelfuls of oil over several vine nodes to encourage auxiliary rooting. Most varieties need a kit if space; a hill will ramble over an 8-by-8 foot square of ground by summer’s end. Planting at the edge of the corn works well. The vines wander among the corn and help to discourage raccoons.[3]

Harvesting 

Pumpkins are ready to harvest when the stem has started to dry and the pumpkin skin has begun to harden. Leave about an inch of stem. Handle with care. Don’t carry them around by the stem; if it breaks off, the pumpkin won’t cure or store well. If the weather is dry and sunny, pumpkins can be cured in the field in about a week. Cover or move inside if a hard frost threatens.[4]

Saving Seeds

Collect seeds from fully ripened fruits that have developed a good hard rind. Halve the pumpkins, fork out the seeds, wash off the pulp, and dry the seeds for a week or so indoors. You’ll notice a few flat seeds. Since these lack embryos, they’ll never grow. You can winnow them off or, if you’re handling small batches of seeds, pick them out at planting time next year. British horticulturalist Lawrence Hills declares that pumpkin seeds improve with age – up to a point, of course.[3]

Storage

Pumpkins do well with more humidity than squash – 70 to 75 percent rather than 60 to 70 – because their skins are slightly more tender. Also for this reason, they don’t last quite as long in storage as do squash. High storage temperatures will make them stringy. Cook and use them in the fall or cut them in thin slices and dry them.[2]


[2] Root Cellaring, Mike and Nancy Bubel, 1991

[3] The New Seed-Starters Handbook, Nancy Bubel, 1988.

[4] The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, Edward C. Smith, 2009

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