TRAVERSE CITY — As kids everywhere gear up for another fun Halloween season, the leaves change and the air turns crisp, pumpkins begin to appear at roadside stands, in stores and on porches everywhere.
Pumpkins aren’t just a staple for food and décor in the fall, though. They are big business for Michigan agriculture. According to the Agriculture Marketing Resource Center, the 2011 pumpkin crop was valued at $116.5 million and Michigan ranked second in the nation with 7,400 acres dedicated to pumpkins. Most of Michigan’s pumpkins are grown for the processing and the jack-o-lantern market.
Pumpkins belong to the plant family Cucurbitaceae, which also includes a number of familiar and delicious garden favorites like cucumber, cantaloupe and watermelon. Optimal production conditions include sites with a pH of 5.8 to 6.6 and soils with adequate water holding capacity. Pumpkins require 90 to 120 frost-free days to reach maturity and are a vigorous and relatively forgiving annual crop for beginners or seasoned gardeners alike. The dynamic nature of pumpkins in their various forms make the possibilities for recipes and crafting an endless opportunity for creativity and utility.
When evaluating an individual pumpkin, look for sound flesh and a well attached, dried down stem. Wash off your pumpkins to help prevent early decay but don’t use soap, just running water and a vegetable brush is best. Select a heavy, unblemished pumpkin that is free of cracks and soft spots. Don’t refrigerate your pumpkin. The moisture in modern refrigerators causes more rapid deterioration. If stored properly, a whole, unblemished pumpkin can be stored for three to six months at 45 to 50 degrees.
When it comes time to select the type of pumpkin to plant in the spring or put on your porch in the fall, the litany of choices is impressive. Choosing pumpkins for décor all comes down to personal preference. When it comes to selecting a pumpkin for carving or decorating purposes, one should consider appearance, storage life and size. There are a number of new varieties that fit the bill for a great jack-o-lantern including Alladin, Big Rock, Charisma, Howden, Lumina, Rockstar and Wee-be-little.
For cooking purposes, the smaller, sweet varieties known as pie pumpkins, such as Peek-a-Boo, Sugar Treat, Dickinson Fields, Baby Pam, Triple Treat, Kentucky Field, Buckskin and Chelsey are recommended. These types are a good choice for cooking because they are meatier and contain less stringy fiber than carving pumpkins. For ideas on how to preserve your pumpkins for eating, visit the ‘Michigan Fresh’ food preservation site via the MSU Extension webpage www.msue.anr.msu.edu.
After the last leaves have fallen and the snow begins to fly, there are ways that we can continue to utilize and enjoy the pumpkins we have used to decorate our porches and homes through the fall. If you didn’t carve your jack-o-lantern, you can preserve it by pureeing and freezing it. Those that are drawn on, painted or left natural should be fine to preserve as long as they have sound flesh and are free of blemishes.
Consider recycling your seasonal décor this year and add a touch of fall to your soups and desserts all winter long.