Pumpkins Are a Very Versatile Native Species

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From home harvest scenes to commercial advertisements, pumpkins have become the standard backdrop from early October to Thanksgiving. They’re not just for Halloween anymore.

North Carolina ranks 11th nationally in pumpkin production. Henderson County produces only a relatively small portion of that. But interest in pumpkins extends to almost everyone. From the home gardener to those with decorative touches in the landscape, pumpkins fascinate people. There are always contests to grow the largest pumpkin. From 4-H Clubs to fair competitions the hunt is always on for the Great Pumpkin.

Miniature pumpkins are just as popular. Pie pumpkins are the choice for cooking. And about the last week in October, almost everyone turns their attention to the search for the perfect jack-o’-lantern.

Pumpkins have become the centerpiece of Agritourism. Agritourism or entertainment farming is a term used for farms offering tours, hayrides, carving classes and field trips as part of their sales business.

What could be better than a trip to the country in the fall air, taking a hayride through the fields, sampling fresh-made pumpkin bread or pumpkin pie and carrying home the perfect pumpkin? North Carolina grows over 2,500 acres of pumpkins, not counting the backyard bounty. However, many of the pumpkins purchased in the state come from places like Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio and Indiana.

In Eastern North Carolina, disease and insect problems hinder production. But pumpkins grow quite well in Western North Carolina. Just don’t expect to grow a world record pumpkin here.

The world record stands above 1,000 pounds. The record-setters were grown in either Europe or Canada, where the climate is much milder.

Pumpkins grow on vines that require a lot of space. That often limits home gardens. However, many newer varieties have restricted vines or bush-type vines and can be grown in smaller areas. This is particularly true for the miniatures.

Most miniature pumpkins are actually gourds. The unique shapes and colors and diminutive size make them ideal for decorative displays.

An interesting oddity is the white pumpkin. White on the outside and orange inside, these pumpkins have become increasingly popular for painting. The white exterior makes the perfect canvas for the skilled artist. These works of art won’t take a place alongside the Mona Lisa in 100 years, though. They will decay over time.

While many of our vegetables were brought here from other continents, pumpkins originated in the Americas.

Pumpkins are usually planted in May and June in Western North. Depending on the vine type, they require 15 to 50 square feet of space per plant. Varieties usually require 75 to 120 days from planting to maturity. Pumpkins fare well with organic fertilizer amendments since they’re not heavy users of nitrogen.

If you prefer to buy your pumpkins, always look for one with a good strong handle that has no damage. Fully mature pumpkins will most often have a dull sheen and will be of the color typical for that variety. Pumpkins that are damaged or not fully mature when they’re picked will have a short shelf life. Even when picked ripe, most pumpkins will store for only one to four months. Southern-grown pumpkins store less than that.

Pumpkins can be a great source of entertainment, whether at the entertainment farming venue or in your own back yard. Arrange a table display with miniatures. Carve your own jack-o-lantern. Make pumpkin pie from an old family recipe. Whether you paint a unique picture on a white pumpkin canvas or just brag about having the biggest pumpkin at the fair, pumpkins always bring fun to fall.

When it comes to pumpkins, orange is still the norm, but you may want to try some alternative colors to enhance your fall display. Several newer varieties have expanded shoppers’ choices when hunting for the “Great Pumpkin.” There are buff colors, whites, reddish-orange and even blue-gray to choose from. Some are even multicolored or have warts on them. These may not have the look and shape of a standard pumpkin. But they do make for an attractive mix in the fall decor.

Miniature pumpkins offer several options, including white, green mixed with orange and even a mixture of green, orange, white and yellow. Minis are sometimes coated with polyurethane to protect them and extend their shelf life. However, if you buy them without the coating, it’s easy to do yourself with a spray can or a small paintbrush.

As you shop for the perfect pumpkin, be sure it has no soft spots or damage that will reduce the shelf life. Look for a good stem that’s fully dried. The more blemish-free the fruit, the longer it will likely last.

When you’re carving for contests or Halloween, don’t cut the pumpkin more than a day in advance. You can extend the life of the carved pumpkin by keeping it covered with a damp cloth when it’s not on display. There are always plenty of resources you can use to carve out new and innovative designs. Carving kits are easily accessible in many stores and roadside pumpkin markets.

The possibilities continue to become endless for creating your own unique fall display. Each new season produces new and unique varieties. Find your favorite pumpkin this fall and then try growing it next year yourself.