Patricia Nell Warren

Victory Garden: Looking Ahead to Those Halloween Pumpkins

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | September 22, 2009 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living
Tags: Halloween pumpkin, organic food, organic gardening, urban gardening, victory garden

Today, September 22nd, is the date that fall officially arrives in our hemisphere. The sun is crossing the celestial equator in its march south, so day and night are about the same length. Fall means Halloween...and pumpkins. If you're making plans to do a jack-o-lantern or two for your front door, don't throw the pumpkins away afterwards. Make a fabulous pie or two (see below).

If you're a home gardener, save the pumpkin seeds. Separate them from the stringy pulp, spread them out somewhere and dry them. Put them in an envelope (not a plastic bag, please -- seeds are alive, so they have to breathe) and keep them in a cool dry place till spring. Then plant them outside as soon as frost danger is past.

And get ready for pumpkins to give you one of the biggest victory-garden adventures there is. More after the jump.

Pumpkins are pretty easy to grow. But for backyard gardens and small city gardens, the trick is to pick the right variety.

Those giants that you see in the Halloween sales lot -- they're not what you want unless you have a lot of room for them! They're probably the "Connecticut Field" variety, commercially grown in a vast farm somewhere. They're meant to be turned into giant jack-o-lanterns, or window displays in stores, or processed by giant food factories and jammed into cans for pie makings. A single seed produces a massive vine that thinks it's Jack in the Beanstalk -- it rambles for twenty-five feet and produces several pumpkins weighing up to 25 pounds each.

That's way out of scale for many home gardens -- including mine.

How to Grow Pumpkins Without Getting Run Over by Them

What works better for many of us are what I call "pixie pumpkins." These smaller varieties make a non-invasive plant, and the fruit is smaller too -- anywhere from two to five pounds. "Baby Bear" and "Sugar Treat" are popular varieties. They are just as good to eat too.

The variety I grow came to me by accident a few years ago, when our household missed stocking up on Halloween pumpkins so we could have pie for Thanksgiving dinner. By the time I started thinking pie, the lots and garden centers and supermarkets were all sold out of pumpkins. All we could find were half a dozen little "decorator" pumpkins about 6 inches across. Undaunted, I cooked them...and they made two of the best pies ever.

The following spring, I planted the pixie seeds in the big 36-inch pots where my citrus trees grow. They burst into robust little leafy vines about 4-5 feet long, that fountained over the edge of the pots like a hanging basket of petunias. First came the pale yellow flowers, then the little fruits, ripening grandly right in midair on those vines dangling down the side of the tree-pot. They appreciated being well-watered and fertilized.

I have grown these pixies ever since. Unfortunately I don't know the name of this variety. But they are a visual delight, and a great space-saver.

One small pumpkin variety that I've read about online is a striped one from Park Seed.

How Pumpkins Came About

Pumpkins are another epic discovery of those Native American agriculture geniuses who also gave us chile peppers, corn, beans and potatoes. See the history background in my piece on chile peppers.

Along with squashes and some gourds, pumpkins belong to the genus Cucurbita, which is an array of tropical vines that were domesticated thousands of years ago. Some squashes and pumpkins still do better in tropical humid climates -- others have accomodated themselves to the drier reaches of the temperate zone.

Says Wikipedia: "At an archaeological site in Mexico, recovered pumpkin seeds dated from 7000 to 5500 B.C. Summer Squash originated in Mexico and Central America and winter squash originated in Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador. Prior to Columbus' discovery of North America, pumpkins were distributed along the Atlantic seaboard and throughout the Midwest. Research into the history of the use of pumpkins reveals that pumpkin cultivation began in South America and eventually made its way to native populations in North America. With the arrival of Europeans to the North America, pumpkin farming was quickly picked up by these newcomers. Through the early settlers, pumpkins seeds were eventually sent to Europe and Asia."

Today, like chile peppers and potatoes, pumpkins are grown all over the world and have been adapted for use in European, Asian and African cuisines.

In addition to their value as a food staple, pumpkin plants are among the most exotic and showy of all vegetable plants. The enormous orange-yellow flowers last only a day, but they have all the tropical gorgeousness of hibiscus flowers.

Pumpkin sex life is interesting too. Blossoms are both male and female. But only the female flower, which has a green ovary at its base, develops into a pumpkin. When you see a pumpkin start to develop, then shrivel, it is usually because of a pollination failure -- meaning you might be short on bees in your neighborhood. (The growing national epidemic of "collapsing hive syndrome" in bee populations means that a lot of us are short on bees.) But you can gently hand-pollinate, using a Q-tip and pollen from the male flowers.

Pumpkin cultivation is pretty simple. Full sun, rich soil, enough fertilizer and water, and a little room to ramble. An old Native American method that saves on space is to interplant pumpkins with corn and bean plants. The trio were called the "three sisters" by Indian cuisine. Fruits usually take 100 days or more till harvest, though my little pixies ripen in less time than that.

Once pumpkins are harvested, they will keep for months if stored in a cool dry place.

The Art of Eating Pumpkins

Today in America, pumpkins are the most underestimated of all the garden vegetables. Most Americans have never eaten pumpkin except in a pie, or maybe pumpkin bread or muffins. So they have the notion that this item can only be a dessert -- and a sadly commercialized one at that.

Actually, pumpkin can be as much a staple food as potatoes or squash. You can bake or boil or steam or sautee pumpkin, even nuke it in the microwave, and serve it as a wonderful side dish. Its rich robust flavor goes well with beef, pork, ham, chicken. You can make all kinds of pumpkin soup -- search the Web for a variety of recipes.

The fresh seeds can be milled for a valuable cooking oil, or gently oven-roasted and eaten as a snack. The flowers are also edible, in soups or salads. Mexican cooks use those flowers for everything -- battered and deep-fried, or rolled in crepes and quesadillas. You can pick some of the male flowers for eating without damaging your plants' pumpkin production.

My Victory Garden Pumpkin Pie

Now for the serious business of pies.

Our Indian ancestors created the pumpkin, but not the pie. That bright idea started with our European colonial ancestors, who had learned pumpkin-growing from the tribes. They'd scoop the seeds out of a small pumpkin, fill it with milk and sugar and spices and beaten egg, and set it near the big open fireplace, turning it now and them so it baked slowly to tender perfection inside its thick rind. Next came the idea of baking the mixture in a pie plate inside a pastry crust.

When guests eat at my house, I often serve my "specialty of the house" pumpkin pie. They're always astonished at the flavor of it, because they are so used to commercial pumpkin pies. I don't know what in hell the food industry does to the processed pumpkin that comes in those supermarket cans, but it just doesn't taste the same as fresh-cooked pumpkin.

My recipe is based on the traditional one in the Fanny Farmer Cookbook, with a couple of twists of my own:


Start with a fresh pumpkin. Any size will do. The prep takes just a few minutes. Knock off the stem, scrub it clean, and cut it in big hunks with a chef's knife. Clean off the inner strings and seeds, but leave the outer skin on it. Two or three hunks at a time, nuke them in the microwave till they are just fork-tender. Depending on how thick the hunks are, nuking usually takes one to two shots on the "potato" setting. Or you can arrange them on baking sheets and bake them at 325 degrees in the oven till just tender.

Let the hunks cool. The cooked pulp scoops easily out of the skin with a spoon, with very little waste.

For the pie shell, use a store-bought 9-inch graham-cracker crust. The graham flavor adds an extra richness to this pie. Pre-set the oven at 400 degrees.

To fill one 9-inch pie, put the following ingredients in a food blender, in this order:

2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1 1/2 cup (1 can) condensed sweetened milk
1 cup white sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. each of ginger, cardamom, allspice, clove, nutmeg and mace
1 tsp. grated orange rind
1 1/2 cups fresh-cooked pumpkin pulp

Put the lid on the blender, and puree the mixture till it is velvety smooth. Set pie shell on a baking sheet and pour the filling into the shell. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. Then lower heat to 300 degrees and bake another 50 minutes, or until the filling is just barely firm in the center.

To make 2 or 3 pies, just repeat batches of filling in the blender. lt's amazing how fast you can make half a dozen pies using the blender method. Old-time cooks had to puree pumpkin by rubbing it through a sieve -- very labor-intensive.

Serve warm or cold with unsweetened whipped cream. Add a scoop of vanilla or lemon ice cream on the side if you like. This pie keeps well for several days in the refrigerator.

Pack the unused hunks of cooked pumpkin in ziplock bags and toss them in your freezer. They will keep that fresh flavor surprisingly well. Thaw them as needed, and use them immediately in whatever recipe you please. If you have a big freezer and a good crop of pumpkins, you can store up enough cooked pumpkin to have fresh pie or side dishes year-round.

I guarantee that once you've grown your own pumpkin pie, you'll always have this wonderful plant in your garden.

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A bit of Bil trivia - I can't eat pumpkin pie. Everyone loves it and raves about it and there's even Starbucks frappucinno and muffins and scones and whatnot in pumpkin pie flavor, but not for me.

I'm allergic to cloves. And pumpkin spice has cloves in it.

You can eat pumpkin pie if you make your own. But don't use the prepared pumpkin spice. Use the spice combination in my recipe, and just omit the cloves. The sky won't fall.

Patricia, thanks for telling us about the microwave-and-blender approach --- much superior to boiling pumpkin on stove (does the heated pumpkin still stink up the house with that very characteristic boiling-pumpkin smell?) and using the sieve. (I always wondered why the sieve was needed if you are careful separating out the strings and seeds ...)

We didn't grow pumpkins this year, but we have farmers' markets that sell them fresh out of the field. I am told that if you are selecting your pumpkins at a market and you don't care about jack-o-lanterns, the smaller pumpkins tend to have a richer flavor for pie-making.

Not only does the baked pumpkin not smell, but it keeps every iota of its flavor, because it isn't boiled in water.

The sieve was needed if you were a fussy cook and wanted a perfect velvety texture, like mousse. The flesh of some pumpkins can be a little "fibrous," so the sieving was intended to eliminate that.

Yes, the smaller punkins do taste delicious.

In fact, I'll bet that those world record pumpkins that weigh in at 1600 pounds don't taste as good as even the smaller ones.

hi i'm a landscaper,
and my cousin is a certified ny state landscaper, and pumpkins generally do not like alot of water. also the pumpkin crop was blighted a few yrs. back by too much rain, you will recall.also when the leaves get "gamey" looking thats too much moisture.
(+, they love sunlight)

pumpkin pie rocks!


I should have qualified and said "enough water." Pumpkins like water if it's hot and dry enough for leaves to droop. After all, they are tropical plants.

I was going by California, where pumpkins do like a lot of water when it's very hot. I play it by ear when watering them.
When they're looking distressed, it's time to get out the hose.

And you're right about mildew -- it's a good idea to irrigate them from the base, not wetting the leaves.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | September 22, 2009 9:26 PM

Dear Great Pumpkin,

Grant us "fodder in the shock," a Happy Halloween, delicious holiday memories of friends here and gone.

All is well in the end.