October is here and pumpkins are piling up at your local grocery store. But where did this strange custom of carving pumpkins for Halloween begin? Well pumpkins are actually native here in North America, but the Jack-O-Lantern tradition was brought here by the English and Irish. They did not have pumpkins back in the homeland and they used to carve turnips and beets instead. Once the pumpkins natural talent for growing large, hollow, and round was discovered it soon became the favorite Jack-O-Lantern choice.
Pumpkins are incredibly useful- they can be cooked into pies, soups, breads, muffins and more; their seeds are delicious when roasted; and of course they make a super-scary porch decoration at Halloween. Here in Florida we can grow our own pumpkins for all of those uses- but you’ll want to do a little research on the variety of pumpkin to grow and when to plant. The time from planting to harvest for the average pumpkin is between 90-120 days. That’s 3-4 months, so if you want to grow a Jack-O-Lantern you will need to plan ahead. August is the earliest you can plant pumpkins outside here in Central Florida so you will likely need to start plants indoors (with abundant sunlight or artificial lights) to protect the young plants from heat and flooding rains. Some options for varieties to grow:
- ‘Howden’: Jack-O-Lantern (90 days to harvest)
- ‘Jackpot’: Jack-O-Lantern (90 days to harvest)
- ‘Big Max’: large, Jack-O-Lantern (120 days to harvest)
- ‘Big Moon’: grown for show, Jack-O-Lantern (120 days to harvest)
- ‘Jack O’Lantern’: small, Jack-O-Lantern (100 days to harvest)
- ‘Funny Face’: good for small gardens, bush type (100 days to harvest)
- ‘Spirit’: small, Jack-O-Lantern and pie (100 days to harvest)
- ‘Atlantic Giant’: top show pumpkin (120 days to harvest)
For any of these plants to produce you will need bees for pollination- so limit pesticide use to protect those pollinators! You will also need lots of space as pumpkins grow on vines and grow six feet or more in each direction. Pumpkin plants also need regular water and regular fertilization. Once fruit reaches about baseball size it is best to remove all but two on each vine to ensure large enough fruit at harvest time.
To learn even more about growing your own pumpkins here in Florida read this: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/MV/MV11600.pdf
Until you plan this out for next year you can always grab a pumpkin at the pumpkin patch, farm, store, or farmer’s market to enjoy this Halloween. When choosing the perfect carving pumpkin, look for one that:
- feels firm and heavy for its size with consistent color
- has no soft spots, mold, cuts, wrinkles or other damage
- still has a stem firmly attached (a green stem means it’s fresh)
- is stable and will sit flat after carving
There are many pumpkin patches, corn mazes, hay rides and other fall festivities in the region, so check local listings and get out there and enjoy the fall fun!