Pumpkins, gourds and winter squash

When Jason Reeves, ornamental horticulturistat the West Tennessee Center forResearch and Education in Jackson, Tenn.,selects his annual crops, you can be surehe includes plenty of pumpkins, gourds and winter squashseed. In the fall of 2010, Reeves and his team harvestedover 5,000 of the fall fruit at the University of TennesseePumpkin Harvest Display, and featured some of themost fascinating varieties of fall produce, with names like”Aladdin’s Turban,” “Fairy Tale” and “Goose Bumps.”

Jason Reeves, ornamental horticulturist at the West Tennessee Center for Research and Education in Jackson, Tenn., grows a wide variety of pumpkins, gourds and winter squash each summer. Over 5,000 people visit the display.

Always on the lookout for new varieties, Reeves plants dozens of new and old favorites. It’s a win-win situation as several thousand people – many of them commercial growers – look for his annual display at the west Tennessee complex.

According to the Illinois Extension Department, over 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkin are grown in the U.S. annually with a value of over $141 million. The majority is sold for Halloween and into the Thanksgiving season. Part of the Cucurbitacea family, this includes the squash, pumpkin, gourds and cucumber. All winter squash is palatable, but some are grown for consumption, while others are more for fall decoration.

Pumpkins, gourds and winter squash are becoming a cash crop in the southern U.S. Many growers alternate planting strawberries for late spring harvest and plant pumpkins and gourds for fall harvest. Two crops annually provide additional income for growers.

Another reason for the market increase is demand by the food industry. Food companies realize pumpkins can be a profitable item, which, in turn, encourages more growers to become involved. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is making consumers aware of the nutritional value of pumpkins and winter squash: low in sodium and calories, yet high in fiber and beta-carotene, an antioxidant. A diet high in this ingredient may reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers.

Benefits from different varieties

Hundreds of varieties exist in pumpkins and squash. These include the following:

Pepo are thin-skinned and include the traditional jack-o’-lantern carving and baking pumpkins. The spaghetti squash and acorn squash are also in this group, with characteristic distinctive hard woody stems with grooved furrows. Pumpkins are either a deep or bright orange.

Pumpkins that grow huge and keep fairly well in storage belong to the Maxima species. The Maxima has a spongy cork-like stem. Winter squash belong to this species. Varieties include Pink Banana, Buttercup, Hubbard and Turban.

The Moschata are excellent keepers. They have a long shelf life and store well. Usually with orange flesh, they are sweet and refined. Stems are smooth and contain deep ridges. The Moschata species lends itself to a multitude of recipes and food preparation. Examples of this species are the Cushaw Green and Gold and Butternut. Elongated in shape, they are tan or cream.

A species with pale yellow or cream-colored flesh is the Mixta, which is not as sweet or refined as the Moschata or Maxima. The Mixta is often stuffed or baked with brown sugar or maple syrup. This added sweetness complements their flavor.

It has been estimated that there are hundreds of different varieties of pumpkins and squash. Today, some companies are selling seeds of the old-fashioned heirloom varieties. Dating back hundreds of years, many come from other countries and are being introduced in the U.S. These are open-pollinated, unlike the new hybrids on today’s market. Baker Creek Seed Company (www.rareseeds.com) in Mansfield, Mo., is one company that is bringing back heirloom pumpkin and squash seed.

Pros and cons of some varieties

Size and weight are factors to consider when choosing which pumpkin varieties to plant. Growers who plan to have pick-your-own should keep in mind the size of the pumpkins. Young children cannot handle huge fruit. Smaller varieties, such as Jack-Be-Little and Baby Boo, a white fruit, are good choices for small children. Jack-O-Lantern is especially grown for carving, weighing from 8 to 10 pounds.

The most common varieties grown in Tennessee are Appalachian, Gold Strike, Magic Lantern, Howden Biggie and Prizewinner. The Cinderella, One Too Many, Fairy Tale, Jarrahdale and Jack-Be-Little are other well-known varieties. Lumina is a ghostly white fruit that is perfect for carving or painting and weighs up to 12 pounds.

Another factor to consider is market location. Is it a local farmers’ market or a commercial supplier where the fruit is transported a long distance? The shelf life will help determine which variety to plant.

Consider the pros and cons of certain varieties when it comes to storage. Pumpkins are more closely related to winter squash than summer squash or gourds, and can be stored for a couple of months due to their thick skin, providing there are no cuts or nicks that allow disease organisms to invade the fruit. Evidently, the pumpkin skin decomposes, rather than dries and hardens like many ornamental gourd species.

Production challenges

One of the challenges facing growers is timing. Planting between June 15 and July 15 allows a range of 100 to 125 days to maturity for a variety of pumpkins. Pumpkins must be harvested and marketed by mid-October and prior to Halloween or their value hits bottom.

Growers realize that limiting contact with the bare ground greatly reduces root rot. This is accomplished by adding mulch and using a no-till approach. Growers are using plastic mulch left over from strawberries for pumpkins. The chemical Gramoxone kills the strawberry plants after the second or third year, and the pumpkins are seeded into the mulch. Making this an economical method, pumpkins can be grown in the plastic mulch already paid for by the strawberry crop.

Essential for good pumpkin production is best management practices for weed and disease control. A water-loving plant, needing 1 to 2 inches of water per week during the growing season, pumpkins will be outcompeted early in production without a weed management program. Later in the season, weeds pose little problem for the strong, leafy plants.

Another challenge is identifying and managing insects. The cucumber beetle, squash vine borer, aphids and squash bugs are the major insect pests.

Of particular concern are cucumber beetles and aphids, as they can spread detrimental viruses throughout a pumpkin crop. Other diseases, such as powdery mildew and bacterial wilt, can quickly destroy a patch. Growers understand that a strong stem is essential. Black rot and Plectosporium blight can destroy the stems, or handles.

Providing proper pollination and fruit set depends on honeybees. Growers bring one to two hives per acre as the plants begin to flower. Factors affecting the number of hives are location, colony strength and competitive plants produced in the area.

Weather in the Southeast can be unpredictable during early fall. An early frost or a sudden temperature drop below 32 degrees can mean a loss of profits. Harvest pumpkins before frost and handle the fruit carefully to prevent injury. Nicks, scrapes and cuts are an invitation for disease organisms to enter the fruit. Clean and remove any soil. To prevent this from happening, dip the fruit in bleach/water solution of 1:4. Remove fruit that have blemishes. Never store diseased products with healthy pumpkins. Cure in an 80 to 85-degree environment with a relative humidity of 70 to 80 percent for 10 days.

Gourds differ in their ability to handle cold and frost. Subject to cold are the Cucurbita-type gourds, which should be harvested and cured prior to frost. Later in the fall, lagenaria gourds can be harvested, as they can withstand light frost. Luffa gourds are ready to harvest when the fruit turn brown.

Looking outside the pumpkin patch

Aside from selling to the food industry, Halloween and the fall season, cucurbit growers are discovering new ways of marketing and adding profitability.

Pick-your-own fruit and vegetable plots welcome families to participate in selecting the perfect pumpkins for carving. Hands-on sites teach creative ways to turn a pumpkin into an original carving. Painting dried gourds brings in another group to try their hand at this folk art. Gourds are top sellers at craft shows and farmers’ markets, which add greater profits. As houses for martins, a small round hole is cut into a dried gourd and placed on a high pole where the mosquito-eating birds earn their keep.

Pumpkins that are not top grade can be sold as decorations for harvest season activities, including hayrides, corn mazes and seasonal projects. Growers in Tennessee can find more information about fall activities at http://pumpkinpatchesandmore.org/TNpumpkins.php.

With the majority of pumpkins grown in Tennessee for ornamental and novelty use, harvest and timing are vital to successful marketing and profitability. Harvest usually begins by mid-September for roadside, grocery and chain store markets. Growers usually have 80 percent harvested by the first week in October for seasonal fall sales. Ninety percent are sold or are in transit to market by October 10. Culls left in the field or pumpkin patch are commonly fed to livestock.

Tomlin is a Tennessee writer who has contributed to Moose River Media for several years.