Pumpkins: A staple of the fall season

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By Dana Hayward
PREVIEW Columnist

Pumpkins are a symbol of the fall harvest season and are an important part of many seasonal holidays and traditions. These winter squash, native to the Americas, are the focal point of family trips to the pumpkin patch, Halloween carving, pie baking, seed roasting and decorating for family and friends at Halloween, Thanksgiving and other fall and winter holidays. Their versatility and many uses have helped them become the important seasonal staple they are today.

Pumpkins are grown during the warm season and harvested in the early fall before the first hard frost. Unlike summer squash, these fruits are harvested at maturity, after they have developed a hard skin. The hard skin allows them to be stored for many months, which is why they are used for decoration and for cooking during the winter.

Here in Pagosa Country, the short growing season makes growing pumpkins a challenge, although selecting the correct varieties and using season-extension techniques may help you successfully grow some of your own.

Most pumpkins take between 80 and 125 days to mature, so they grow best below altitudes of 5,000 feet, where days are warm and the growing season is long.

However, if you hope to grow your own pumpkins in Pagosa Country, selecting fast-maturing varieties is a good option. Starting pumpkins indoors is also a possibility, although they do not tolerate root disturbance well, so transplanting must be done very carefully. Fast-maturing varieties include Baby Boo, a white mini pumpkin that matures in only 80 days, and Spooktacular, another miniature pumpkin that matures in 85 days. The Baby Boo produces approximately nine pumpkins per plant and is a decorative variety that can also be cooked as a tasty side dish. The Spooktacular variety is very round and works well for carving.

If you are determined to try longer-season varieties using season-extension techniques, Munchkin, Jack-Be-Little and Baby Bear varieties may be worth trying. Munchkins are a mini pumpkin that mature in 100 days and can be used decoratively and for baking. Reaching maturity in 105 days, Jack-Be-Little pumpkins can store for up to a year if properly cured and stored. Baby Bears also mature in 105 days and produce good seeds for toasting and sweet fruit for baking. Most of the larger Jack-O-Lantern varieties take over 110 days to mature and are likely not a good choice for growing at our elevation.

Pumpkins should be planted in the spring, after danger of frost has passed. These warm weather plants will grow well if planted at a 2-inch depth when soil temperatures are at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pumpkins need a lot of space and sunlight, so they should be planted in rows of mounds 4 to 6 feet apart, ideally in a garden that receives consistent sunlight throughout the day. A south-facing garden area close to a fence, home or other heat-absorbing surface would be ideal.

Once the pumpkins have three or four leaves, they should be thinned to one plant every two feet. If pumpkin seeds are planted into moist soil, they shouldn’t be watered again until they germinate.

As the plants grow and the weather warms, these deep-rooted winter squash will need more water. The best way to promote good vine and root growth is to water pumpkins deeply every five to seven days. Watering correctly is important as promoting vine, root and leaf growth is critical to growing full-sized fruit — it takes of lot of plant energy to produce a pumpkin. Watering is especially important from late July to early September, when the plants bloom and produce fruit.

You will know your pumpkins are ready to harvest when vines and stems become dry and the skin of the fruit toughens so it is not easily punctured by a finger nail. Be sure to keep a close eye on nighttime temperatures, as a light frost won’t damage pumpkins, but a hard freeze will ruin their storage qualities.

To harvest, cut pumpkins from the vine, leaving at least 2 inches of stem attached if possible. Take care to avoid bruising the fruit or breaking the skin. After harvest, most pumpkins can be stored for two to three months or more at temperatures above freezing and below 65 degrees. It is not a good idea to let pumpkins cure in the garden, as they may freeze or the stems will bleach and the fruit may sunscald. It is best to harvest them when ready and store them in a cool, dry place. It is also a good idea to remove new growing fruit in September so existing fruit can mature.

After harvesting your pumpkins, enjoy them during the holiday season and beyond as decorations and tasty savory and sweet dishes. Roasted pumpkin seeds, easily cooked in the oven at 250 degrees for 10-15 minutes, are a special seasonal treat, as are pumpkin pies, soups and more. If you are interested in drying pumpkin, here is a tasty recipe taken from Edible Front Range for pumpkin pie leather:

2 c. fresh cooked pumpkin puree

1/2 c. honey or brown sugar

1/4 tsp cinnamon

1/8 tsp nutmeg

1/8 tsp powered cloves

Blend ingredients and spread on an oiled tray. Dehydrate at 140 degrees until pliable, but not tacky or brittle. Peel from tray in strips if possible. Roll and wrap each strip in plastic wrap and store in airtight containers.

For more information on growing pumpkins, download Fact Sheet No. 7.609, Cucumbers, Pumpkins, Squash and Melons, written by C.W. Basham and J.E. Ells, professors in the Department of Landscape Horticulture at Colorado State University. This Fact Sheet can be found on the CSU Extension website at www.ext.colostate.edu.

If you have additional questions about growing pumpkins, storing them safely over the winter or using them for cooking or baking, contact the Archuleta County Extension office at 264-5931. Enjoy this pumpkin-filled season.

4-H registration

Register your child for 4-H by tomorrow, Oct. 31.

The new 4-H year has begun, so don’t miss this opportunity to enroll your child in a youth development program that teaches life skills, community involvement, leadership and much more. If your child is between the ages of 5 and 18, he/she is eligible to join over 150 youth throughout the county in this fun and educational program.

If you are interested, but need more information, call the CSU Extension office at 264-5931. Families re-enrolling must register online by Oct. 31. Partial and full scholarships are available upon request.

Free wood chips

We are cleaning up the fairgrounds and all of the wood chips that helped keep things dry during the fair are available to anyone for pickup. If you are interested, just bring your pickup truck and haul it away. No need to call the Extension office for permission.

CPR and first aid

CPR and first aid certification classes are offered monthly by the CSU Extension office on the second Monday and Wednesday of each month from 6-10 p.m. Anyone needing to receive or renew certification can register by calling the Extension office at 264-5931.

We will also schedule classes on additional dates with five or more registrations. Cost for the classes is $80 for combined CPR/first aid and $55 for individual CPR or first aid. Group rates are available.

The type of first aid information provided will vary by the needs of the audience. Call the Extension office at 264-5931 for information.