It’s pumpkin time!
Halloween on Oct. 31 is said to be the day when ghosts are scared away; however, there is no mention of Halloween in early English writings, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that the word comes into use. Nov. 1 is All Hallows Day or All Saints Day (hallows is an archaic word for saint), so the truth is that All Hallow’s e’en, or the eve of All Hallows day, is a more likely explanation. But that’s getting off the subject.
The association of Halloween and pumpkins appears to go back to before Shakespeare’s time, when scary faces were carved into mangolds (or mangelwurzels) and turnips to scare bad spirits away before All Saints Day. In Somerset, England, near where I lived when I was a teenager, hollowedout carved mangolds are called punkies, although that is not the origination of the pumpkin name. The word “pumpkin” is said to be derived from the Greek word for large melon, “pepon,” although by Shakespeare’s time, the name had become “pumpion.” By the time the name moved to America, the fruit was known as pumpkin.
The best way to grow pumpkins is to create a large pile of compost and manure at this time of year and let it rot over the winter. In spring, put your pumpkin and squash seeds in the pile and keep them well watered. Add wellrotted manure if you can find it – pumpkin vines are heavy feeders and require a lot of nutrients.
Over the summer, the vines will grow…and grow. I’ve seen them grow up walls, over hedges, through fences and across walkways to deposit pumpkins 20, 30 or sometimes even 50 feet from the roots. Keep the root system well watered, don’t walk on the vines and you should have some nice fruit for your Thanksgiving table.
You can also grow winter squash in the same compost pile, but the pumpkin vines will usually take over. Other types of winter squash include butternut, acorn, patty pan, delicata, pink banana, long island cheese, hubbard types and many others. The list is long and you should be prepared to process your squash when you get a large pile of fruit.
Many squash are grown for their seeds; several Mexican dishes use ground pumpkin or other squash seeds as part of the recipe. Animals also love the seeds and will ruin your squash just to get at the seeds.
Squash can be problematic because they are attacked by squash borers and other squash beetles, and suffer from powdery mildew, anthracnose, mosaic virus, bacterial wilt and late season vine collapse. If that doesn’t put you off, the squash can simply refuse to set fruit.
Powdery mildew is most common around here. In the middle of summer, the leaves start to develop little white hairy spots. If not treated with a multi-purpose fungicide, mildew will spread to all the leaves and the plant will die.
Mosaic is caused by the cucumber or squash mosaic virus. Fruits look misshapen with a mottled look. The best way to control this is to keep the growing patch clear of beetles that can spread the virus and to make sure you use quality seeds that do not already contain the virus.
Late season vine collapse often happens to my squash. It is caused when a cold spell hits the plants and then temperatures warm up again. The plant shuts down when the cold spell hits and cannot get enough water to the leaves when the temperatures warm up again, so the plant collapses.
Squash, especially butternut and acorn, will stay edible for up to three months if stored in a cool dry place. But the longer you store the fruit, the stringier it will become. I prefer to store it by cutting it up and pureeing it, then freezing in pie-sized portions. That way, I can make a pumpkin pie just about anytime.
The winter squash family is a versatile group of vegetables, well worth growing and quite tasty at the dinner table. You can also enjoy carving your pumpkins and toasting the pumpkins seeds for a tasty snack.