To eat, carve, or simply to decorate with, pumpkins are a wonderful annual to grow. The genus Cucurbita L. encompasses a variety of cultivars including Cucurbita pepo, Cucurbita argyrosperma, Cucurbita moschata, Cucurbita mixta, and Cucurbita maxima. All Cucurbita varieties are members of the Cucurbitaceae family which also includes cucumbers, squash, and watermelon.
While you can’t go wrong planting any variety of pumpkin, you may want to choose your variety based on what you want to use your pumpkins for. Miniature pumpkins are great to grow for ornamental reasons, medium sized ones are wonderful for cooking, while the larger varieties lend themselves to easier carving if you’re into Halloween festivities, but can also be used to cook with.
Pumpkins are native to North and Central America, and are grown on every continent except Antarctica. They have been cultivated for more than 5,000 years and are a part of what is known as the Three Sisters. The Three Sisters are squash (pumpkins included here), corn, and beans, and grown in compliment to one another.
To grow pumpkins, plant in full sun, and in a spot that allows plenty of space for them to grow and the vines to meander. You will need to plant your pumpkins early enough to allow for at least 80 growing days. Plant them 2 weeks after the last frost date in your area has passed and the soil has warmed above 70°F. Pumpkins are heavy feeders, therefore you will need to work compost or aged manure into your soil prior to planting to ensure the soil can support them.
Pumpkins grow best when seeds are planted directly in ground, 1” deep, in small hills. After planting, and during the first fruit set, water plants well and then consistently each week, but don’t allow soil to become waterlogged, or leaves and fruit to remain damp, as this can lead to fungal growth and rot. Weed your garden well and use organic pest control methods if squash bugs or aphids try to take over the garden. Once your pumpkins have begun growing, they will need very little tending.
Pumpkins are ready to harvest once they reach their deep full final color and their rind is hard and sounds hollow when thumped. To harvest mature pumpkins, cut the vine, leaving ample stem on the pumpkin to lengthen keeping time. Cure your pumpkins for a week in the sun after harvest in order to toughen the skin. Then store your crop in a cool (55°-60°F), dry location.
When it comes to eating your pumpkins know that not just the fruit is edible, but also the leaves, seeds, and flowers. However, only eat the male flowers, and only eat them after the pollen has matured (readily comes off onto your fingers), or there will be no fruit. To tell the difference between male and female flowers, know that male flowers appear first, usually 1-2 weeks before the female flowers, and are more numerous. Male flowers will be on a thin, upright stem that pops up several inches above the vine. The male flower will have a center stamen that contains the pollen. In contrast, the female flowers are pretty easy to pick out because they will have a mini-pumpkin fruit attached between the stem and flower and are close to the vine.
The female flower will contain a multi segmented stigma, which is pollinated to produce fruit.
But why eat any part of the pumpkin at all? Well, 1 cup cooked pumpkin will give you 49 calories, 0 grams of fat, 2 grams of protein, and 12 grams of carbohydrates (3 grams of which is dietary fiber). Pumpkin is an excellent source of Vitamins A and C, and a good source of Vitamins E, B-2 (riboflavin), and the minerals copper, manganese, and potassium. It also provides the Vitamins K-1, and all the remaining B’s (except B-12), and the minerals calcium, non-heme iron, magnesium, phosphorus, selenium, and zinc.
The flowers of the pumpkin provide, in a one cup serving of raw blooms, 5 calories, 0 grams of fat and protein, and 1 gram of carbohydrates. The flowers are good sources of Vitamins A and C, and also provide the vitamins B-1, B-2, B-3, B-9, and the minerals, calcium, non-heme iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium.
The leaves offer nutrition too! In a one cup serving of cooked leaves, there is 15 calories, 0 grams of fat and protein, and 2 grams of carbohydrates (2 grams of which is dietary fiber).The leaves are excellent sources of Vitamins A and K-1. They are good sources of non-heme iron and manganese, and also provide Vitamins C, E, and all the B’s except B-5 and B-12, and the minerals, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, and zinc.
Don’t forget the seeds! In a one cup serving of roasted seeds you will be given 285 calories, 12 grams of fat and protein, and 34 grams of carbohydrates. The seeds are an excellent source of copper, magnesium, and zinc. They are a good source of non-heme iron, manganese, and potassium, and also provide the Vitamins A and all the B’s except B-5 and B-12, and the minerals calcium and phosphorus.
Whoa talk about powerhouse nutrition! These gourds got it all! So how do you eat these healthy veggies? Let’s start with the leaves.
To eat the leaves you need to prepare them properly. Hold leaves upside down by the stem and split the stem and pull it backward. Gently pull fibers from the outside of the stem and the back of leaf. After that a quick sauté in olive oil, salt, and pepper will do the trick. You may want to blanch them first to bring out more of their sweet flavor.
Flowers tend to do best when battered and fried. I like to use almond meal and beaten eggs to dip in and coconut oil to fry in. Throw a little parmesan cheese in there too for added flavor.
The seeds are great for roasting. Once cleaned, place them in a single layer on a cookie sheet and drizzle with olive oil or melted butter. Salt and roast at 300°F for about 40 minutes or until golden brown. You can also use any other spice that suits your fancy.
Now the pumpkin flesh! My favorite! Oh the many things you can do with this wonderful food! Pies, soups, breads, and gratins, oh my! My favorite thing to make though is the recipe below!
1 pumpkin (find one that fits into your Dutch oven)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 small head cauliflower, coarsely chopped
3 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
4-6 oz. Gruyere (or other hard cheeses) and cheddar cheese, cubed
3 cloves garlic, mashed and coarsely chopped
6 slices bacon, cooked until crisp and chopped
½ cup fresh chives chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely chopped
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Preheat oven to 350°F
Carefully cut off the top of the pumpkin. Reserve top for later.
Clean out pumpkin and top
Season interior of cleaned pumpkin with salt and pepper
Place in a Dutch oven
In a separate bowl, toss together cauliflower, celery, cheese, garlic, bacon, chives, and thyme until well combined
Pack into pumpkin until well filled, don’t overstuff
In a small bowl, mix cream and nutmeg
Pour over filling to moisten, but don’t drown it
Place top on pumpkin
Place in oven
Bake for 1.5 hours or until filling is bubbling and pumpkin flesh is tender
Bake for an additional 30 minutes or until top begins to brown and liquid evaporates slightly
Remove from oven and serve straight from your Dutch oven!
If you like it spicy, add a jalapeño or two for added kick! If you want different flavors, throw in additional spices to the cream such as cloves or allspice. If you find you have too much filling, just reserve it later to bake on its own, or get to filling another pumpkin! Get creative here, and make this pumpkin perfect for you!
Pumpkins are easy to grow and extremely useful vegetables. From large to small, they add such warm color to the garden, your home, and your culinary creations, and not to mention a wealth of health and variety to your nutritional profile. So, plant, eat, or simply enjoy the view of these “gourdeous” viney garden delights.
Natural Resource Conservation Service. USDA. Classification for Kingdom Plantae Down to Genus Cucurbita L. https://plants.usda.gov/java/ClassificationServlet?source=display&classid=CUCUR
University of Arizona Extension. Ag in the Classroom. University of Arizona. https://www.agintheclassroom.org/TeacherResources/TerraNova/clr_pumpkinnews.pdf