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A good year for pumpkins

At this time of year, we see piles of pumpkins at market gardens that have been picked off the frozen vines and are ready for purchase. Huge orange giants, paler varieties that grow even bigger — the ones used in pumpkin-growing contests, ghostly white pumpkins, and miniatures; they are all there in vast array. Of course, it is no accident that these displays are present just before Halloween since most children (and some adults) want to be able to carve a jack-o’-lantern.

Growing pumpkins is sometimes a bit of a challenge during a cool summer because they demand a high number of heat units but this year was hot and sunny and many pumpkins ripened right on the vine. Immature pumpkins will stop growing once the vines are frozen and they do not store well and may rot instead of turning orange. Mature pumpkins that are still green when harvested, however, will ripen and turn orange, but the best pumpkins are those that have turned bright orange on the vine, have a hard skin and are fully ripened.

There are many, many varieties of pumpkins, and when choosing seed in the spring, the choice can be a bit overwhelming. One category is often called pie pumpkins because they have a fine texture to their flesh. They make good pie filling because the flesh is not stringy or tough — it purées into a smooth filling. Pie pumpkins are not too large, and they ripen relatively early on the vine.

Another type of pumpkin is the large exhibition type — the huge giants that are grown for competition to see who can grow the largest one. They can weigh hundreds of kilograms and often appear lumpy and misshapen because they grow so large and so quickly that their size causes them to sag and change shape under their own weight.

Competitors often feed these pumpkins special food, water the plants several times a day and shelter them from the elements with some kind of cover. They are often placed on a bed of straw or other material to keep them clean and to protect their shells from being marked; these giants take more effort to grow than the average gardener is willing to expend.

Another category of pumpkins is called jack-o’-lantern pumpkins. Slightly larger than many of the pie pumpkins, these have the classic pumpkin shape, with a bright-orange colour and smooth ribs all the way around.

Unique decorative and specialty pumpkins have gained in popularity over the last few years so that now you can grow pure-white pumpkins, “blue pumpkins” or even multi-coloured pumpkins. These can contribute colour and interest to autumn displays.

Mini-pumpkins are used to create displays for both the interior of the home and for the outdoors. My favourites are a miniature orange ribbed pumpkin called Jack Be Little and a white version called Baby Boo.

Pumpkins need lots of sun, water and rich soil. They also take up a lot of space in the garden. Minimize the space taken up by planting them next to the corn and let the vines ramble through the corn while at the same time keeping the coons at bay.

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