Pumpkins — unabashed, bumptious and oh-so colorful — take their star turn in the autumn. Once they have served their duty as Halloween jack-o'-lanterns, we turn to pumpkins for a handsome Thanksgiving decor and delicious recipes.
So while this year's vines have finished producing, why not save the seeds from the pumpkins you have now for another year's harvest? It's easy.
Pumpkins all belong to the Curcurbita genus, along with thick-skinned winter squash, such as butternut and turban squash, and thin-skinned summer squash, such as zucchini. Winter squash grow in the summer, but the thick skins allow them to be stored until winter. Pumpkins are members of the pepo species. Even within that species, though, there is great variation. It is possible to find seeds that will bring you all sorts of weird and amusing pumpkins.
Why are we talking about growing pumpkins in the middle of November? It is because now is the time you can save the seeds for next summer from the pumpkins gracing your doorstep or table.
Pumpkin seeds are just about the easiest seeds to save. Seeds should be taken from pumpkins that are at least three weeks past maturity. That will certainly be the case for any pumpkins you are using now. Here's how you do it:
- Cut the pumpkin in half, but try to put the knife in only far enough to go through the flesh, otherwise you might harm the seeds.
- Pull the seeds from the fibers, rinse them and dry them on a paper towel.
- Store them in a brown paper bag until next year.
It couldn't be simpler.
One thing you should know is that all the species of curcubits cross-pollinate so you might get a surprise if you don't have the space to grow your pumpkins a half mile apart. That's OK. Unless you are actively saving seeds of a particular heirloom variety, then the surprise is part of the fun. All curcubits are pollinated by insects.
Pumpkins also "seed save" on their own. I often find pumpkin vines growing mysteriously in my garden among tomatoes or up bean poles. Pumpkin seeds also can survive a home compost pile. I don't mind at all. Often these are my heartiest plants, with a deep bow to Charles Darwin.
When you are looking through seed catalogues for next year, one of the varieties of pumpkins to look for is the French heirloom Rouge Vif d'Etampes, also known as the Cinderella pumpkin, because it resembles the coach the Disney animators drew for the movie. While these have become more commonly available in stores, it is very entertaining to watch them grow as each one develops a distinct personality. To top it off, they have a very nice pumpkin flavor and can be used in any squash or pumpkin recipe.
Although the names are similar, be sure to distinguish between the Cinderella pumpkin and the Fairytale pumpkin. The Fairytale is a nickname for the Musquée de Provence pumpkin. Like the Cinderella, this pumpkin has deep ribs and smooth skin, but it ripens from green through orange to a deep mahogany. It also has a good flavor and is a long-keeping variety.
If you want to grow a pumpkin to carve, look for seeds for varieties such as "Howden" or the "Connecticut Field Pumpkin." These pumpkins grow to be about 15 to 20 pounds, but do not have much of a flavor so don't use your jack-o'-lanterns to make pies.
For pie, look for varieties of sugar pie pumpkins. The "Small Sugar" is a good bet at about 5 to 8 pounds. A slightly smaller sugar pumpkin is the "Baby Bear."
The adorable toddler pumpkins that we see around are probably "Jack Be Little" pumpkins. They have a very long storage life and are also useful for cooking. In addition, they are very easy to grow.
The "Jarrahdale" is a rare Australian pumpkin that is a beautiful deeply ribbed curcubit with shiny slate grey skin. The seeds are hard to find, but it can sometimes be acquired through seed-saving organizations.
Seed-saving for vegetables other than pumpkins can be done throughout the year during the fruit or vegetable's harvest season. You can get really good information on how to do this online at www.seedsavers.org/Education/Seed-Saving-Instructions/. Or check Organic Gardening's website at http://bit.ly/NAv3dv.