The leaves started turning early this year, but not before the first little pumpkins appeared in the grocery store.
It seems a little odd to have pumpkins on sale at the same time as zucchini, but not as odd as the fact that pumpkins and zucchini are the same species, Cucurbita pepo. “Pumpkin” is a surprisingly squishy concept. If not squashy. Yes, pumpkins are just a kind of winter squash, but winter squash can belong to several different species, some of which also include summer squash.
As near as I can tell, the functional American definition of a pumpkin is any squash you can make a Jack-o’-lantern out of: hard-skinned, thin-walled, orange and roundish. But then there are the out-of-the-box pumpkins that turn up at the farmer’s market: the blue Australian variety ‘Jarrahdale’; the deeply ribbed ‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes’, perfect for Cinderella’s coach but not easy to carve into a scary face; and the white ‘Ghost’ and tiny ‘Baby Boo’. ‘Lakota Red’ is vividly colored and pear shaped, calling out unusual creativity in carvers. There are yellow things and striped things that the farmers market folks insist on calling pumpkins, but after a while they all look like squash to me.
Maybe the qualifying question is: Can you bake it in a pie? Here in Illinois we grow 90 percent of the nation’s pie pumpkins (mostly varieties of Cucurbita moschata). So it is probably disloyal of me to report that you can actually make a pie out of almost any winter squash. I have made butternut squash pie. It was hard work – all that simmering and pureeing before you could even start baking – and it was on the sweet side, but otherwise quite good.
Once when I was a child we tried to make a pie out of our Jack-o’-lantern. It didn’t work very well. Halloween pumpkins (mostly Cucurbita pepo, except for the giant pumpkin-contest ones, which tend to be Cucurbita maxima) are bred for thin, easy-to-carve walls. The little flesh they have is stringy. Pies are better made from compact, thick-walled pie pumpkins, sometimes called cheese pumpkins.
Growing pumpkins takes a lot of space – the vines can be 15 feet long or more — and a long growing season. They need to be direct-sowed, but not until the ground is thoroughly warm, no earlier than mid-June. Some folks in really short-season areas get a head start by sowing seeds under lights or in a greenhouse in plantable paper or peat pots, so they can set the seedlings out without disturbing the roots. After planting, it will take about 100 to 120 days until you can harvest mature pumpkins.
The other challenge is providing a steady supply of water. If you use a sprinkler the water tends to run right off the huge leaves, but soaker hoses work well, as long as you get them laid out before the prickly vines start to sprawl.
Even small pumpkins get very heavy, so they are not a good bet for containers or trellises. It’s a tricky crop, really, but if there is room, it is fun for children to grow their own Halloween pumpkins at least once in their lives. If the crop fails, they can always do what the Irish do for a Jack-o’-lantern: Carve a turnip.