Pumpkin pleasures abound in autumn
by Ellen Goff
Pumpkins are everywhere — you find them in stores, at farmers markets and on tailgates along the roadside. Choosing one is a sacred rite of the $4 billion Halloween holiday, second only to Christmas in decoration sales, according to the National Retail Federation.
The best place to find the perfect pumpkin depends on what you're looking for. If you're ready to start carving and not too picky, buy one at your local grocery, garden center or farm stand.
However, many families combine their search with an annual fall outing to a local pick-your-own farm with acres of pumpkins.
One such farm is the family-owned Carrigan Farms in Mooresville, N.C. Visitors each year search for the perfect "Magic Lantern," a variety exhibiting fungal-disease-resistant traits that's grown in the 10-acre pumpkin patch. "They're just like people," says co-owner Doug Carrigan. "They come in all shapes and sizes. The best one is the one you like the best. For most kids, it's the largest one they can carry."
With a little planning, next Halloween you could find the perfect pumpkin in your own backyard. Growing jack-o'-lanterns can be a fun family project and will captivate the attention of almost any kid. From seed, they need about 90 to 110 days in full sun to mature. Plan to plant in mid- to late June.
Tips on what to look for
When searching for my own pumpkins, I follow these criteria:
• Size: If I can't lift it, it's too big.
• Appearance: I look for classic coloring and even form. If one side's perfect it's alright if the backside is misshapen.
• Freshness: A must, with no sign of damage or spoilage.
• Stability: It needs to stand upright and not easily tip.
Most importantly, it must speak to me with that certain something — a personality all its own. I'll know it when I see it.
A type of winter squash, pumpkins need room for their vines to ramble. Smaller varieties — "Baby Bear," "Little Guy" or "Jack Be Little" — can be grown on a sturdy three-sided trellis. "Autumn Gold" turns orange in just six weeks with 7- to 10-inch round fruit. "Big Max" and "Big Moon" grow to more than 100 pounds. "Lumina" remains a pale, ghostly white.
Raising pumpkins in the Carolinas and Georgia can be challenging due to fungal mildew that accompanies high summer humidity. In Florida, these conditions are overwhelming. If you want to raise your own pumpkins, know that the watering and drainage would have to be regulated and applications of fungicide would be required weekly from July to harvest. It can be done, but you need to be committed to your crop.
John Larson, owner of Hydro Harvest Farms in Ruskin, Fla., buys pumpkins from growers in northern states, ensuring his supply for customers at his Great Pumpkin Patch.
"People bring their kids out for the pumpkins, activities and games," Larson says. "But they end up staying to tour the farm." His farm attracts a lot of visitors, in part, because of Larson's intensive agricultural practices. His 1-acre operation is all-hydroponic, which uses one-fifth the water that traditionally grown crops do in one-eighth the space.
Whether you visit a pumpkin farm or have grown your own, you won't go wrong by incorporating some of nature's best autumn offerings into your Halloween decor.
Ellen Goff is a freelance horticulture writer and photographer. She's passionate about plants, water quality and protecting the environment. Aside from working with words and pictures, she stays busy with her home landscape and its inhabitants along the shores of Lake Wylie, S.C.