October brings shorter days and a chill to the air along with the final harvest in most parts of the U.S. Out of that final harvest comes an item I look forward to every year with great anticipation: pumpkins! Yes, pumpkins and winter squashes have arrived and Halloween is not far behind. Like every year I gear up for the one day I get to practice my hand at a fleeting but wonderful art form - Halloween pumpkin carving!
Our home garden crop
Our home garden crop was harvested a few weeks ago from our "mystery bed" - seeds we saved from our favorite jack-o-lanterns the year prior. My son Aidan nursed our prize winner through the summer, feeding it every few weeks and watering it every day until we wrestled the 125 pounder out of the garden along with the rest of our harvest (which totaled 21 medium-sized and 50 or so smaller squashes and pumpkins). It's also time to harvest the compost from our last halloween. What's left of the 46 pumpkins we carved last season is now a rich, dark humus; ready to feed our fall and spring gardens.
Elevated compost - pumpkins, one year later
This is a tense time for pumpkin growers all over the U.S. It's the end of a long growing season where something big, like an unexpected rainstorm, or small, like a hungry field mouse or gopher, can undo an entire growing season. Pumpkins and winter squashes are remarkably resilient and prolific plants but like all commercial production vegetables they do not respond well to excessive moisture (mold) or hungry pests.
Giant pumpkins in the field- Castroville, CA
Pumpkins are also very much a regional crop so the challenge always seems to be matching available supply with demand, which almost always requires us to move product from one geographic area of the U.S. to another (oftentimes at the last minute). Pumpkins are one of only a few field crops with a "deadline" (meaning Halloween) - a harvest delay of any kind and a grower will miss the window where the product has value.
Enormous pumpkins! Weighing in at 500 pounds or more.
For carving nuts like me, there is the annual challenge of finding a new carving technique or variety. Last season was all about teeth - I discovered by happy accident that by removing the outer skin of the pumpkin to expose the color of the inside provided a great contrast that I could shape into teeth (or other parts of the face).
This adds a new dimension that I hope to improve on this year. The method is simple: I take a knife and cut an outline of the area I want to remove. I then take my linolium knife and peal off the outer skin just like you would peal linolium off of the floor. Afterwards I use a regular knife to shape the teeth.
I love blue and red varieties of pumpkins and squashes. Varieties like the Cinderella and Jarradale are super easy to carve and have a great contrasting interior and exterior color that really stands out when lit. They are also flatter than traditional pumpkins so the faces tend to be squashed and more interesting.
This year I plan to refine my pumpkin "totem" skills. The goal this year is to get five pumpkins to stack without toppling. There are no new refinements to my collection of tools - just the standard saws for cutting and knives for carving. I like a range of tool sizes to match the size of the pumpkin I'm carving so I have exacto knifes and saws for small up the scale to progressively larger tools for the bigger specimens.
I usually take the day off to carve but I won't have to this year since Halloween falls on a Saturday. I may still take the Friday off to get ahead the carving. There are several ways I've heard to preserve carved pumpkins but none are very ecological.
The best method I've found is simple hydration: I will remove the seeds, carve the pumpkin, then spray it down both inside and out to remove dirt or other debris. Since I compost my pumpkins I keep them for a while. Depending on the weather conditions, simple hydration will keep your jack-o-lanterns for about two to three days.
There are some new giant varieties I will try this year (one bright red and another a dark shade of purpleish-green) that look like they will be fun to carve - assuming I can lift them. I'm always looking for new pointers and ideas so share 'em if you have 'em! Happy Halloween!