October is a great month. From harvest to football and cooler weather to…Pumpkins!
Pumpkins are great for eating and for decorating homes for Halloween and Thanksgiving. People seem to go crazy for all of the different edible pumpkin ideas. I even use products to make my house smell like pumpkins. The pumpkin industry is huge in the United States. In 2015, every person in the United States consumed an average of 3.1 pounds of pumpkin. This was even lower than the typical average of 5 pounds per year, but in 2015 we had a pumpkin shortage due to poor weather events, making it more difficult to find pumpkin food products in stores.
Pumpkins are a member of the cucurbit family of plants. They are in the same family as cucumbers, squash, watermelons, cantaloupe, zucchini, and, their cousin for decorations, the gourd. They can be grown throughout the majority of the United States. For mass production, the majority of our pumpkin comes from Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California. Illinois grows around 90-95% of the processed pumpkins for the Libby corporation located in their own state. Libby is the company that makes the majority of the canned pumpkin products found in stores.
Pumpkins are easily grown, but need a lot of space to grow well. They need full sunlight and a lot of water because pumpkins are 90% water. Vining pumpkins need 50-100 square feet of space per hill. Allow 5-6 feet between hills. It is hard to keep the correct spacing when planting little seeds, but the plants will fill in fast. If they are planted too closely together, they can get diseases from the humidity during the summer months amongst all of the large leaves. Pumpkins can be planted when tomatoes can, as long as it is after the last frost of the spring. However, if planted too early, you will have pumpkins for Halloween in August, so it is best to wait until mid-June to plant your pumpkins. You know when your pumpkins are ready to harvest when they have turned color and resist a fingernail when it is gently pushed against the rind of the pumpkin.
Saving seeds from pumpkins can be done easily when carving, however the next year your pumpkins may look different. Plants can cross pollinate with other plants within the same species. Pumpkins, zucchini, gourds, and some types of winter squash all share the same plant species, Cucurbita pepo. These plants could then cross-pollinate among each other and cause a unique type of pumpkin to grow. However, the cross-pollination will only change the plants that are grown from saving seeds. So, if you save seed or throw old pumpkins into a garden patch and don’t disrupt them too much next spring, you will get plants to grow, but the pumpkins you grow will not look the same as what you had this year. Cross-pollination does not affect the current seasons produce.
There are a lot of different pumpkin varieties to choose from, each having their own niche in the pumpkin market. The most common one this time of year is the Jack-o-Lantern type pumpkin which is medium sized and good for carving. It is best to not use the Jack-o-Lantern type for cooking, they don’t have the best flavor and texture. For cooking and baking use the pie pumpkin, a smaller type with creamier flesh and better flavor, which are not ideal for carving. There are many other choices including Fairytale pumpkins which are squattier, heavier, and light orange colored. Mini pumpkins are fun for easy decorating indoors and out and can be found in many colors including traditional orange and white. Giant pumpkins are grown for competitions and festivals and are specially grown. A regular Jack-o-Lantern type can get large, but for the extraordinarily large, choose seed for giant pumpkins. There are pink pumpkins, striped pumpkins, blue pumpkins, warty pumpkins, and even gourds that like to help accent your Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations. This information came from John Porter, Urban Agriculture Program Coordinator at Nebraska Extension.