There is a lot to love about pumpkins.
First, they are fun. It doesn’t feel like October without a pumpkin on the stoop. Carved into a Jack o’ Lantern, or chosen for its irregular and warty appearance, pumpkins give us our own Jack o’ Lantern smile.
It was the Irish who brought the tradition to North America. A couple of hundred years ago in Ireland they carved turnips into lanterns to ward off “Stingy Jack”. Upon landing in North America, they found that pumpkins were easier to carve.
As décor, a pumpkin doesn’t create waste. Simply toss it in the composter or just leave it on the surface of the soil in your garden and let the frost “melt” it into the soil. You can even eat some of it before if goes in the compost. As a couple of practical guys, we appreciate any décor that lends itself to eating and composting.
They are delicious, and nutritious. Pumpkin pie happens to be Ben’s favourite, and generously salted pumpkin seeds are a favourite of Mark’s. You might have to look elsewhere for the “nutritious” recipes, but here’s a cooking tip from Ben’s kitchen: substitute shelled pumpkin seeds for pine nuts in pesto recipes to save money and accommodate pine-nut allergies. Nobody will tell the difference.
According to Statistics Canada, there were over 2,500 farms in Canada with pumpkin patches last year, and as of 2001, pumpkins had risen to become our 7th most important vegetable crop after potatoes, sweet corn, peas, beans, tomatoes and carrots, from 15th in 1986. Pumpkins, a cultivar of squash (Cucurbita pepo), are native to Mexico and the southern US but are indeed a very Canadian crop.
Visit any fall fair and you are sure to find the crowds gathered around the giant pumpkin display. Phil Hunt from Cameron, Ontario broke the Canadian record last year for a giant pumpkin weighing in at 1,959 lbs – close to being Canada’s first one-ton pumpkin. If you’re thinking of getting in on this game, “Dill’s Atlantic Giant” of Windsor, Nova Scotia is said to be the World Largest Pumpkin Variety – the product of 30 years of selective breeding by Howard Dill. Order your seeds direct (https://www.howarddill.com/) and plug into a world of resources through the Giant Vegetable Growers of Ontario (https://www.gvgo.ca/).
Some things to think about if you’re thinking of getting into this very competitive “field”:
A single pumpkin plant can cover up to 1,200 sq. ft. and require over 1,800 liters of water per week, so make sure you have lots of room for your plant to spread and access to water.
Start your giant pumpkin seeds 5-7 weeks before last frost – around late March – transplant them by late May.
Full sun is essential.
Remove all the flowers and fruit except one – the most promising – to force all your plant’s energy into one behemoth.
Manually pollinating will maximize seed production and the odds of bigger fruit. Pollinate by removing the leaves from the male flowers, which look like straight stalks, and dabbing them on the female flowers which have round-shaped ovaries at their base.
It is good to put down aged manure at this time of year where you intend to plant in the spring, or up to 5 cubic yards of compost per plant in the spring. Fertilize with compost tea.
Professional growers place a pallet under their fruit before it gets too large. This avoids damage to your pumpkin for transport to the fair.
To qualify in competition, the surface area needs to be red, pink or yellow without any cracking. Otherwise it is considered a squash, or a big piece of compost. A jumbo pumpkin is not tasty.
Whether you want to go down in history as Canada’s first one-tonne pumpkin grower or you’re pulling a pie out of the oven, you can count on pumpkins to provide smiles at this time of year.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and Member of the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook.