Gardening: The Great Pumpkins, squash and gourds


Pumpkins come in an array of colors, shapes and sizes — from traditional to unique. JANET B. CARSON

October and pumpkins are almost synonymous. While many think only of the mid-size orange jack-o’-lantern type, pumpkins, gourds and winter squashes come in a myriad of sizes and colors. From tiny Jack-B-Little forms to the competition giant pumpkins at county fairs, a wide variety of pumpkins and their relatives are readily available at local markets.

Pumpkins are members of the cucurbit family, which means they are related to cucumbers, watermelons, squash and gourds. They all have hard, outer rinds that can last for quite some time. When choosing them for your fall yard art, make sure the fruits have a hard, blemish-free outer skin and at least a small stem attached. If they don’t have a stem, and/or if they have any soft spots, they can rot fairly quickly.

Some spray the fruits with a clear sealant after getting them home to help them last longer, but don’t do that if you plan to eat them. Saving seeds from cucurbits to replant is not a great idea, since most cucurbits cross-pollinate with their neighboring family members. The result will be a cucurbit that may or may not resemble the parents.

While you can make a pie from most pumpkin varieties, the quality will vary by species, with some containing stringy fibers and some having less sugar content. Pumpkins are low in calories, fat and sodium and high in fiber. They are good sources of vitamin A, vitamin B, potassium, protein and iron. You can even cook a stew or soup inside a hollowed-out pumpkin and roast it in the oven. The flowers are also edible, and roasted pumpkin seeds are a tasty snack.

If you want to get double duty out of what you use, the best pie pumpkins are smaller, mid-size fruits, including Sugar Pie, Baby Bear, Cinderella and Small Sugar. The “peanut pumpkin” has what looks like peanut shells attached to its rind. A mid-size fruit of this plant also makes for great eating. Other great eating and decorative winter squash include: butternut squash, red kabocha, acorn squash, blue hubbard and the smaller, striped sweet dumpling squash.

If you are looking for a record-breaker large pumpkin, you can choose from the traditional Big Max, Atlantic Giant or Prizewinner. These pumpkins can top out at well over 100 pounds but typically are not good to eat. Other decorative but less tasty winter squashes include the colorful Turk’s Turban and the warty Knucklehead pumpkin.

Pumpkins, winter squash and gourds are long-season vegetables and require a lot of space in the garden, so most people let the farmers do the growing for them.

Keep in mind, the minute you cut a pumpkin, you shorten its shelf life. A carved or cut pumpkin will only last a few days.