The Ubiquitous Autumn Pumpkin

For the week of Halloween, how could I possibly pass up the chance to write about pumpkins? This symbol of October is so lasting, so cherished, so well loved. When my children were young they used to go crazy with anticipation until it was time to harvest our pumpkins. Then the entire month of October was spent experimenting with different culinary uses for them. Now if your children aren’t great about eating their fruits and veggies, I can promise you this: they will devour foods with pumpkin in them. For some reason, kids don’t seem to even associate pumpkins with the nutritional goodness that they pack. Instead, they are focused on the brilliant orange skin, and the plethora of goop and seeds inside. I suppose that to kids, pumpkins just seem like too much fun to be healthy.

Many people refer to pumpkins as vegetables, which is perhaps because they are closely associated with other types of squash and gourds. Technically, though, pumpkins are a fruit because they contain seeds. I am sure that you commonly hear pumpkins referred to as vegetables, right? Same thing goes for tomatoes. But the thing that makes both pumpkins and tomatoes technically fruits is that they contain seeds. Therefore, bell peppers are technically fruits as well, despite the fact that we very commonly refer to them as vegetables. Pumpkins are part of the cucurbita species of plants, which includes squash, watermelons, and cucumbers- all technically fruits. Here’s where an easy argument comes in, though: The term “vegetable” is actually just a culinary term, and many people argue that its definition is subjective and has no scientific value. So, let’s just say that whether you call a pumpkin a fruit or a vegetable is up to you, shall we? (And next time the conversation goes flat at a dinner party, just bring this up and see which side people take.)

In my garden, I have experimented with different types of heirloom pumpkins over the years. I have harvested pumpkins in blue-grey shades, funky oblong twisty shapes, and even some that are warty. But none of the ones I have grown have looked like your average, run-of-the-mill grocery store pumpkin. Like many other types of fruits and vegetables, what you’re used to seeing in the store is a hybridized pumpkin that has been bred to have smooth skin and a long, broad carving surface. When you open your garden to heirloom pumpkin varieties, you have a huge range of colors, textures, shapes, and sizes to choose from.

My daughter’s favorite has always been the Rouge Vif D’Etampes pumpkin, or what she used to call the Cinderella pumpkin. This pumpkin makes an excellent fall decoration because it is slightly squat and wide, and develops a very deep, rich red orange color. This variety of pumpkin is excellent for cooking and baking as well, since its flesh is firm and sweet. Isn’t it a beauty?

One of my personal favorite types of pumpkin is the Jarrahdale, which originally hails from Australia. Isn’t this just an interesting, unusual looking pumpkin? I love the deeply ridged gray-green exterior. A major plus is that this is a downright delicious pumpkin, too. The flesh on the inside is unique in that it is not stringy at all, and it has a nice bright yellow color and sweet flavor. Another bonus is that Jarrahdales can be stored for quite a long time, as long as they are kept in an environment where they are not at risk of mold and mildew attack.

For the kids, it’s always fun to grow a classic, round and orange variety of pumpkin as well. One type that I have had success with is the Cheyenne Bush Pumpkin. Now if you have a limited amount of space to grow your pumpkins, this is a good option for you. Typically, the fruits will only grow to be about 7 pounds, whereas Jarrahdales will be somewhere in the 10-20 pound range, and Cinderella pumpkins can grow to be as large as 40 pounds. While this is not the first pumpkin I would recommend for taste, it has quite a bit of visual appeal.

For a small pumpkin that actually tastes good, try the New England Pie Pumpkin. You may also hear these called Sugar Pie pumpkins. This should be your #1 choice for canning, and of course for dessert baking. These pumpkins grow to be only about 5-8 pounds, which makes them easy to handle. Of course, the name is not just clever. These pumpkins have a naturally sweet flesh.

Now regardless of which variety you choose to grow, one thing that you will need is a little bit of patience. Most types of heirloom pumpkins take around 100 days from planting to harvest. Some giant varieties take a full 150 days. For jack o’lantern and cooking types of pumpkins, such as those I have listed above, it is best to start your seeds indoors in early May. Your pumpkin plants can then be sown outdoors between May 15 and June 15. If you are still at risk of frost- make sure to provide protecti0n. Young pumpkin plants are very delicate. Later when your plants blossom, and finally your fruits grow, you may need to place a fence around them to protect them. Turns out that not just humans are attracted to pumpkins- your neighborhood critters might try to get to them, too. After approximately 4 months, your patience will be rewarded.

So while it may be too late this year for you to grow your own heirloom pumpkins, it’s never too early to start planting next spring’s garden. I am confident that you will enjoy moving the tradition of pumpkin picking from your farmers’ market to your own backyard.


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