Pumpkin Celebration

Photo by Jill Thomson. Pumpkins carved by the Thomson family-Is this scary?

Jill Thomson
Saskatchewan Perennial Society

In Saskatchewan, October could well be known as the month of the pumpkin, because of the 2 celebrations that both use pumpkins. In early October, on the Thanksgiving holiday, many families celebrate by eating a special meal together, and pumpkin pie is often a favourite dessert.  On October 31, we celebrate Halloween, and pumpkins are on display, carved so that a light can be inserted into the hollow pumpkin, to illuminate the carved design.

Many grocery stores have large bins of pumpkins for sale, some of which are now supplied by local growers. There are also “pumpkin patches” where you can select and buy pumpkins that are either pre-picked, or you can go out into the field to select your own. I visited a patch a few weeks ago and it was a very happy place, with small children, and adults, enjoying being able to choose ”their own” pumpkin.

It is not difficult to grow your own pumpkins as long as there is room in your garden for a plant that likes to ramble, climbing any obstacles in its path. The seed can be sown directly into the soil once the soil temperature is at least 15°C. However, the plants do need at least 110 days to grow to maturity and it is better to start seeds indoors not more than 3 weeks before the danger of frost has passed. The young plants can then be transplanted. It is important to remember, however, that vine crops do not like to be transplanted so disturb the pumpkins roots as little as possible when transplanting.  Pumpkins like a fertile soil, so well-rotted compost or manure should be incorporated before planting, and plants should be watered well during the growing season. They also like a sunny location, and we plant ours beside a corn row, as they will grow through or along the row. They will also climb up a frame, or wire, but then you need to provide a sling, or other support, for the developing fruit.

Pumpkins can grow very large, and heavy, depending on the variety you choose. Some gardeners like to grow huge varieties, with competitions to see whose is the largest. The world record weight in 2021 was 1226.1kg. That would make a lot of pies! Some people have grown them big enough to act as boats when they are hollowed out, and in 2021 a man from Nebraska paddled 38 miles down the Missouri, in a 384 kg pumpkin, to challenge the previous record of 25.5 miles.

Typically, we grow mid-sized pumpkins that are large enough to be carved at Halloween, but can still be carried by a strong adult. This year our ‘Big Moon’ plants produced big pumpkins suitable for carving, and  ‘Spirit’ hybrid cultivar was good for pies. We do also cook the flesh of the carved pumpkins to feed to our dogs:  this is an excellent addition to their diet and helps bulk-up a meal for any dog on a diet.

The tradition of carving pumpkins is connected to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which marked the end of summer and beginning of the New Year in ancient Britain and Ireland. On that day the souls of those who had died would pass to the Otherworld, and other souls might return to visit their homes. In Ireland, people began to carve turnips into frightening faces, to scare away a particularly bothersome soul called Stingy Jack. The Irish folk who immigrated to the USA began to carve faces into pumpkins, which were readily available, unlike turnips. As the trend is now to make Halloween less frightening, and more a fun time for children, the carvings are not intended to be scary but are rather a display of the skill of the carver! 

Pumpkin plants are native to North America, and have been farmed by indigenous people for over 9,000 years.  Pumpkins ripen in the fall and were used for feasts at that time. Early recipes mention roasting a hollowed pumpkin filled with milk, spices and honey, over an open fire. Native Americans gave settlers gifts of pumpkins and demonstrated how to cook them. It is likely that cooking pies using a sweet pumpkin filling would have been developed by settlers preparing Thanksgiving meals. There are many variations on the pie, my favourite is a pumpkin cheesecake.  It has been estimated that about 50 million pumpkin pies are consumed for Thanksgiving every year in the USA.

Enjoy pumpkins this month; admire their glowing orange colours, the scrumptious desserts produced for Thanksgiving, and the elaborate carvings on display at Halloween.

Jill Thomson is a plant disease specialist (retired) who enjoys gardening with her family in Saskatoon. This column is provided courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society (SPS; saskperennial@hotmail.com ). Check out our website (www.saskperennial.ca) or Facebook page (www.facebook.com/saskperennial).