Pumpkin

41001Actually, it is a fruit; a rather BIG fruit. It happens to be one of the more familiar of winter squash, but is not too commonly eaten. Although it makes excellent pie, and provides edible seeds and flowers, pumpkin is more popularly known as jack-o’-lanterns or Cinderella’s ride to the ball. Pumpkin is not for every garden, since each big and coarsely foliated annual vine needs regular watering, rich soil and considerable space to grow all through summer to produce only one or two big fruit in autumn.

Most pumpkins are big and round, and have smooth and bright orange skin. Those grown for jack-o’-lanterns are brighter orange, and not quite as meaty. Those grown for pie are often a bit smaller and meatier, with a rustier orange color. The biggest pumpkins get too huge to move easily, but lack flavor. The flavors and densities of many weird modern varieties are as variable as the green, red, pink, yellow and white hues of their skins. Some pumpkins have been developed specifically for their seeds, which are known as pepitas, or are used for production of pumpkin seed oil.

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Pumpkins Need Not Be Wasted

81107thumbThere is likely no other fruit that gets wasted quite like pumpkins. Almost all get hollowed and carved into Jack o’lanterns, illuminated from within for Halloween, and then discarded or added to compost within the next few days after Halloween. If they stay too long in the yard or on the porch, they mold or get partly eaten by squirrels. They were fun while they lasted, but the party is over.

Most people who use pumpkins for Halloween d├ęcor do not consider recycling them in the kitchen. Pumpkins carved into Jack o’lanterns are considered to be as disposable as cut flowers that have started to fade. Realistically, Jack o’lanterns that were carved several days prior to Halloween are probably too far gone by now to be recycled, and some are too sooty and toasted inside.

Of course, those that are not so deteriorated can be used in the kitchen like other winter squash. Sooty or toasted portions are easily cut away and discarded. The brightest orange pumpkins that were bred to make the best Jack o’lanterns, are not as meaty or as well flavored as those that are grown for culinary use, but they are not bad either. Their thinner shells are quick to bake or roast.

It seems that most pumpkins in supermarkets this year are not quite as bright orange as those that were developed specifically for Jack o’lanterns. They also seem to be more dense with thicker shells, as if bred to be recycled in the kitchen after Halloween. The smaller and more brownish pumpkins that are heavy with thick shells are probably still the best for pies, even if no fun to carve.

White, pink, green, yellow, red and bluish gray pumpkins are as variable as their colors are. Any are worth trying in the kitchen. Although some are quite bland, others have rather distinctive flavor. Those that are deeply furrowed or very lumpy are of course awkward to work with. Like other winter squash, pumpkins are very tough, so it is important to be careful when cutting them into pieces.

White Pumpkin

71004thumbTheir creamy white exteriors do not reveal much about the flavor within. They looks like they might taste like vanilla, or coconut, . . . or maybe Swiss cheese. Below the white skins, white pumpkins (Curcubita pepo) have orange flesh that really tastes like other pumpkins, but maybe a bit milder, like ‘pumpkin-light’. They are popular because they look so cool, and make great jack-o-lanterns.

They take a while to mature, so pumpkin plants should get into the garden as soon as weather is warm enough for them in spring. They can be grown from seed sown directly, or from seedlings. They want rich soil, and need to be watered regularly in order to grow evenly through summer. The annual vines sprawl on the ground, producing only one or a few fruits each, finishing by first frost.

Popular varieties of white pumpkin, like ‘Cotton Candy’, ‘Lumina’, ‘Casper’ and ‘Silver Moon’ can weight more than ten pounds. Less common ‘Full Moon’ can get to be seventy-five pounds! White pumpkins makes as many edible flowers as orange pumpkins make, but not as many seeds. ‘Baby Boo’ and ‘Gooligan’ weigh less than a pound, and are only a few inches wide, so are inedible.

Winter Squash Last For Months

IMG_20140301_073739With all the talk about replacing warm season vegetables and bedding plants with their cool season counterparts this time of year, we should also address the irony of summer squash and winter squash. Their designations suggest that they too grow in specific seasons; summer and winter. Duh. It would make sense that summer squash would be replaced by winter squash during autumn.

However, both groups are warm season vegetables that can get planted or sown as seed in early spring. The vines of both summer and winter squash grow through spring and summer, and then eventually succumb to the first frost. The difference is that summer squash start producing early and abundantly, and continue to produce through summer. Winter squash ripen slowly in autumn.

Summer squash, like zucchini, pattypan and crookneck squash, are very prolific. Zucchini can be overwhelmingly so. However, their fruits, which are incidentally considered by most to be culinary ‘vegetables’, are best fresh. Otherwise, they are quite perishable. They can be frozen or canned, but do not hold up well. Consequently, good summer squash are unavailable after the first frost.

Winter squash, like Hubbard, acorn, butternut, turban and spaghetti squash, as well as pumpkins, are not nearly as productive. Individual plants might produce only single large fruits, or only a few small fruits, depending on variety. These fruits develop and ripen so slowly that they are not ready until autumn, as the vines are withering. Supposedly, exposure to slight frost improves their flavor.

The advantage of winter squash is that the fruits are tough enough to be stored for months into winter, hence their designation as winter squash. Some pumpkins can be stored out of the weather for months after winter, although flavor and nutritional quality slowly deteriorate. If that is not long enough, the flesh of winter squash can be peeled, and then frozen or canned. Unfortunately, winter squash are no substitute for summer squash, and take more work to cook, but they are certainly worth growing.

Squash For Summer And Winter

80425thumbConsidering that some of the winter squash can last right through winter and into spring, there really is a squash for every season. By the time the last of the winter squash run out, the first of the summer squash will be ready later in spring. They get an early start here, and continue until frost. By that time, the earliest of the winter squash will be ready for autumn, and will last through winter.

However, they all get planted about now. There is no such thing as cool season squash. They are all warm season vegetables (actually fruits). The vines and foliage all grow like weeds while the weather is warm, and then succumb to frost at the end of their season. They all grow very easily from seed, but because each garden needs only a few plants, they are often planted as seedlings.

The main difference between summer and winter squash is that summer squash plants continue to produce many smaller fruits while the weather is warm, and winter squash plants produce only a few larger and firmer fruits that develop slowly while the weather is warm, and then finish ripening as the vines that produce them die in autumn and winter. One begins where the other finishes.

Zucchini is the most familiar summer squash here. It is most productive if regularly deprived of its tender juvenile fruit, and is notably less productive if the fruit is allowed to get bigger and tougher. Pumpkin is the most familiar winter squash here. It is expected to produce only a few big and firm fruit that take all season to develop. Extra juvenile fruit may get plucked to favor one or two fruits.

Summer squash deserve more prominent locations in the garden because the fruit gets harvested regularly. Zucchini grows as a large plant, but stays somewhat confined. Winter squash want the same sort of rich garden soil and watering, but can be put out of the way. Except for plucking a few extra fruit, not much more needs to be done to them. Some like to climb fences. Pumpkin vines can be directed to the edge or just outside of the garden.