There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin. -Linus
Despite this decades-old advice from It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, this year's local pumpkin crop is worth talking about. There are few things more American than pumpkin pie, and few things as uncontrollable as the weather that grows its main ingredient.
Summer heat and dry weather affected pumpkin patches and other fall crops throughout the region this year, but the extent varied. "Our pumpkins and other fall crops, tomatoes, peppers, cotton, corn, did well this year, despite the heat, drought and heavy rains," said a representative from Ticonderoga Farms in Chantilly, Va. "With the hot weather, we needed to use irrigation once per week on the pumpkins." Ticonderoga has sold upward of 4,000 pumpkins so far this year.
Other farms have not fared so well.
Keep reading to find out how weather affected other pumpkin farms and learn more about what it takes to grow a pumpkin.
"The pumpkin sizes and amount are down this year because of the drought ... Last year, there was too much rain and they rotted out in the field. This year, it's the opposite problem," said a manager from Zekiah Farms in Waldorf, Md., which does not use irrigation. Zekiah also had a poor corn crop this year due to drought, and the size and quantity of apples at a nearby orchard were also smaller than average, though not extreme. The farm's pumpkin patch is still decent, and the farm store is selling a variety of pumpkins and gourds.
There are two main categories of pumpkins grown in the United States, though all are part of the Cucurbitaceae family, which melons, cucumbers and other squashes also belong to. Pumpkins used for baking and pie filling are a small, pale variety. Ninety to 95 percent of the U.S. pumpkin crop used for pie filling is grown in Illinois. After a rainy and devastating 2009 growing season that left grocery stores around the country void of Libby's canned "100% pumpkin" product, Illinois weather has been kinder to pumpkin growers so far this year.
The other category, used for ornamental purposes, are mostly variations of the Connecticut Field pumpkin, the mid-sized, perfectly round, bright orange type that we see in pumpkin patches. Although they can be used for baking, they make a much better jack o' lantern than pie.
In the mid-Atlantic, pumpkin seeds are planted each year in mid-to-late June, early July at the latest. Like other crops, the plants require certain weather conditions to grow, the ideal being warm temperatures (from 75 to 86 degrees in daytime to mid-60s at night), dry air and a moderate amount of rain at the right time in the growing season: think Central and South America, where pumpkins and other cucurbits originated more than 9,000 years ago.
Like other squashes, pumpkins are fruits that grow on the vines of the plant. They are 90 percent water, and thus need sufficient moisture (this year's fall rains were too late). Too much rain can cause them to rot. According to Zekiah Farms, "Southern Maryland is the worst place -- and the furthest south -- to successfully grow pumpkins because it's so hot and humid." Dry, sunny, warm days with light rain at night or dew in the morning are more favorable.
If it's too dry and hot, like this past summer, pumpkins may produce too many male blossoms and too few female blossoms, resulting in a smaller harvest. Lack of water during droughts can also result in smaller and lighter-weight pumpkins, which is what Zekiah Farms and other non-irrigated farms experienced. Frost can damage or kill the vines; in fact, this is what makes picking pumpkins from pumpkin fields so easy in October. The pumpkins themselves need 90 to 120 frost-free days to mature, though frost does not affect them once they have matured.
Native Americans cultivated squash and pumpkins for medicinal use and used the flesh for food and weaving. Colonists used them for culinary and medicinal purposes, and also created the first pumpkin "pie" by scooping out the seeds, filling the pumpkin with apples, spices and milk, and baking it on hot ashes (sounds yummy ... anyone want to try it and report back?). The jack o' lantern concept originated in Ireland and Scotland with the intent of scaring away "Stingy Jack" and other evil spirits.
If you have not yet visited a pumpkin patch this fall, a number of farms in the area have a healthy or decent pumpkin crop (see map). If you have, how were the pickin's? Leave a comment below with your pumpkin commentary. And despite Linus's advice, we're in D.C., so talking about religion, politics and even the Great Pumpkin is okay.
Oh, Great Pumpkin, where are you?