Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Great Pumpkins

Linus, the precocious, blanket-toting character from the “Peanuts” world, which by the way is now a Canadian franchise, waited faithfully for “The Great Pumpkin” each Halloween night from 1950 to 1999. If anyone else had been stood-up that many times by the same character, they’d have thrown in the towel (or blanket) for sure. Perhaps Linus’ resolute faith that the mythical pumpkin would show up was spurred on by the fact that almost every year brings the world a bigger “great pumpkin” of the sort one can measure, and – at least potentially – eat.

In fact, pumpkins have gotten so big in recent years that folks have cleaned them out and paddled around in them. Heck, if you’re not claustrophobic, maybe you could even live in one – now there’s an elegant fix for the current housing crisis. If the Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe got booted out of her rent-free digs, imagine how thrilled she would’ve been to inhabit a giant pumpkin. Talk about the kids eating you out of house and home, though…

Being a scholarly lad, Linus probably looked toward the Maritime provinces on Halloween night because he knew great pumpkins come from there. In 1979, Nova Scotia plant breeder Howard Dill patented “Dill’s Atlantic Giant,” a pumpkin variety whose genetics serve as the basis for today’s record-breakers. Although Mr. Dill was often called the Pumpkin King, I doubt he’s related to the Great Pumpkin. These days, giant pumpkin enthusiasts (that’s regular-size people and colossal produce) compete in dozens of countries thanks to him.

In 2021, a Cape Breton grower brought things back home to where they began with an 887-kilogram (1,956-pound) leviathan he dubbed “Howard’s Ghost” in honour of the pumpkin king. Howard (the pumpkin, that is) set a Maritime record and came within two kilos of being a Canadian national champion. Pumpkins took a giant leap forward in 2022 when a California-based farmer smashed the world record with a 1,247-kg (2,749-pound) monster-veggie he named “Michael Jordan.” That would be a dream come true for Linus.

You can bet the seeds from such record-holders command a high price. Beyond good genes, it takes a lot of daily attention to raise a contender. Growers put in untold hours of labour, which intensifies as the developing “babies” need ever-increasing amounts of water.

Pumpkins are a type of winter squash, one of many varieties originally selected for and cultivated by First Nations. Hubbard and butternut squash, along with the small hard pie pumpkins we grow today, have been raised by Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) farmers since long before European contact right into modern times. Even the word squash is of Algonquin origin. Europeans chose Greek-based “pumpkin”
for the ribbed orange variety because “The Great Squash” didn’t sound quite right.

From ancient times until today (or maybe tomorrow if they’re busy at the moment), Haudenosaunee farmers cut and dry strips of pumpkins and squashes for use in late winter after the storage life of most squashes has run its course. If old-time longhouses had dehumidifiers and thermostats, those veggies could have lasted all winter.

Oddly enough, successful storage actually begins in the field or garden. Pumpkins and squash will last longer if you bring them in before the first hard frost (below -2 Celsius). Always pick them up while supporting the bottoms, and never carry them by the stem – if that breaks, rot will set in. For pumpkins, a 10-day hardening-off treatment of 26 to 29 degrees at 80 percent humidity will help harden the rind
and prolong storage life. This treatment isn’t necessary for butternut, turban and Hubbard squashes, and will actually harm acorn squash.

In terms of storage conditions, the critical thresholds are 10 and 70: never cooler than 10 degrees or more humid than 70 percent. The ideal “Goldilocks” numbers are 15 degrees and 60 percent humidity. Store pumpkins and squash away from apples, which produce ethylene gas that will hasten ripening and shorten storage life. Check stored squash every few weeks, as one rotten one can spread decay to others.

Under good conditions, acorn squash generally last 5 to 8 weeks. Pie pumpkins often keep for between 3 and 4 months, while Hubbard and butternut squashes can sometimes keep for up to a year. Given that giant pumpkins have Hubbard genetics, I’d expect they could last a while. But who’s going to build a storage room around a 1,200-kg pumpkin?

It would seem this agricultural super-sizing may have been predicted 70 years ago by little Linus. Maybe I should revisit those old comics to read what else the child philosopher had to say.

Val-des-Monts, QC resident Paul Hetzler is a former Cornell Extension educator. He’d settle for a visit from “The Pretty Good Pumpkin” this Halloween.

Photo at top: Pumpkins. Photo Credit: Franklin County Cornell Cooperative Extension, Adirondack Almanack file photo.

Related Stories

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at PaulHetzlerNature.org or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World


Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox