On a crisp October day, there's nothing like getting back to the soil. A pratically painless way to satisfy this urge is to pack the kids into the car and go pumpkin picking. If you don't count the money you spend on gas, you may even save a few cents on the purchase of your annual jack o'lantern.
Our first foray into farm life was a visit to Potomac Vegetable Farms in Vienna. (From Beltway Exit 11S, take Route 23 to the intersection with Route 7. Take Route 7 west about four miles to the farm.)
When we arrived, a senior citizens' art class was painting the scene: cornstalks, red barn and bright orange pumpkins. While my 4-year-old and her friend headed straight for a grouping of giant pumpkins marked $6 each. I asked where we could pick our own. A woman sorting tomatoes gave directions up a hill, across a field, past the corn crib, down a hill and through the woods to the pumpkin patch. It was about a half-mile trek, but nobody complained because on the way we met three horses, two bulls, a roosteer and a hen.
As we picnicked beside the pumpkin patch on sandwiches from home and cider purchased at the stand - we spotted two box turtles lounging among the vines. When it came time to pick pumpkins, the kids found that the vines were "all prickly" and just pointed at pumpkins for me to retrieve. Most of the pumpkins in this patch were small - a fact I was grateful for when the kids reneged on their promises to carry their own.
Back at the stand, the clerk explained that there might be bigger pumpkins to pick later this month, possibly even in patches nearer the parking lot. He was going to charge 35 cents each for our pumpkins, but when I pointed out that the small pumpkins at the stand were also 35 cents he reduced the price to 25 cents. Potomac Vegetable Farms is open daily, 9-7:30. (Phone 759-2119)
My 4-year-old preferred the next stop in our random survey of pumpkin patches. Robin Hill Farm Nursery, "because we didn't have to walk so far." This 140-acre family farm is set among rolling hills far from the madding crowd but still in Prince George's County. (From Beltway Exit 34, take Route 4 to Route 301. Take 301 4 miles south to Croom Road (Md. 352) on your left. Follow Croom Rd. about 8 miles to the farm.)
In addition to pumpkins and picnic tables near the parking lot, Robin Hill Farm Nursery has another attraction: animals for kids to look at, pet and say "oink, oink" to. There are pigs, chickens, a mother goat with two kids, sheep, ducks, rabbits and a donkey - all penned - plus several free-roaming dogs and cats. The dogs and cats accompanied us to the pumpkin patch, which contained hundreds of potential jack o'lanterns of every conceivable size and shape. There were some bright orange pumpkins, but many looked rather pale and washed-out. "We got some bad seed," lamented the owner.
After breaking your pumpkins off the vine, you take them into a barn where tobacco is hanging up to dry. There they are weighed and sold for 8 cents a pound. Robin Hill Farm Nursery is open everyday in October, until dark. (Phone: 301/579-6844).
At Butler Orchards in Germantown, Md., you can get back to the soil without getting your hands dirty. (From Beltway Exit 19, take Route 270 to the Damascus exit. Following the signs toward Damascus, take Route 118. Red-and-white Butler Orchards signs will lead you to the farm).
Butler's is sort of like a drive-in supermarket - but in a very picturesque setting among acres and acres of apple trees. You drive right to the pumpkin patch, guided by signs that tell you exactly where to park, eventually, and lead you back to the check-out stand. Farm workers have been to the patch ahead of you and cut the pumpkins from the vines, so you "pick" you own only in the sense of selecting your own. This way, you don't have to feel guilty if your kids keep changing their minds about which pumpkins is The Great Pumpkin.
Even though you don't have to break the pumpkin off the vine, it's two cents a pound cheaper to retrieve pumpkins from the field than to select them at the stand: 9 cents versus 11 cents. Butler Orchards is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 to 5:30. (Phone: 972-3299). There are no resident animals, but a farm about half a mile down the road gives pony rides on weekends - something you probably won't be able to avoid if your kids can read signs.