Every autumn at the rustic juncture of Old Hundred Road and Comus Road, they appear: an eye-popping bonanza in orange, yellow, pink, green and steel blue.
They sit in tidy rows atop wooden crates, perched on bales of hay and stacked inside a tall wooden wagon, with labels that read like an eccentric seed catalog: Bumpy Sunrise, Delicata, Red Kuri, Cinderella, Lakota, Ruby Hubbard, Long Island Cheese. Handwritten signs caution customers to avoid the cardinal sin of pumpkin-handling: “Please: Do not pick up by stem.”
The proprietor of Comus Market’s seasonal bounty of pumpkins and other winter squash is David Heisler, 56, who grew up on a nearby dairy farm here in upper Montgomery County, Md. Decades ago, while living in a house across the street, he noticed that a parade of motorists backed up at the intersection’s stop sign every weekend, homeward bound after a day of hiking or picnicking at nearby Sugarloaf Mountain.
“All these people were coming to enjoy the landscape, but they weren’t taking a piece of it home,” Heisler remembers thinking. “So I decided to grow pumpkins.”
His affinity began early. As a young boy, maybe 5 or 6, he found seeds in his father’s toolbox; not knowing what they were, he planted them. The first seed grew into a sunflower; the second, a pumpkin. In the late 1980s, he started growing pumpkins on his grandfather’s property up the road. Several years later, in 1995, he opened Comus Market in an old wooden garage across the street from the historic Comus Inn.
Today, Heisler cultivates nearly 40 varieties of winter squash (and sunflowers, too), many of them heirloom, on a large tract of land just down the road, selling his goods at the market until Thanksgiving. He keeps bees; has a garden where he grows tomatoes, beans, summer squash and herbs; and still manages a few acres that once belonged to his grandfather.
On a recent afternoon, Heisler is bustling about the market, concerned about two early frosts that damaged many of his crops and watchful for a coming storm: more rain after a cool and wet summer. Sugarloaf Mountain swells above the surrounding fields, purple and gold in the afternoon light. Out back, an employee scrubs freshly picked pumpkins and other squash in a sink, while aging hens wander in and out through the market’s open door, skittering away from a rooster named Pretty Boy.
Heisler, in jeans, a gray T-shirt and work boots, climbs into a cluttered white pickup and heads to his nearby fields. Rotund orange pumpkins lie in every direction, their unruly vines sprawling atop the rolled rye that he plants to control weeds, manage the moisture of the soil and give the pumpkins a bed to keep them clean. Bordering each field are rows of buckwheat and other cover crops that support native pollinators and beneficial insects, key to Heisler’s bio-centric approach to farming.
Grabbing a pair of long-handled pruning loppers, he begins cutting. “Selecting an individual pumpkin out of hundreds, if not thousands, attributes a personality to it,” he says, rolling over a specimen as tall as his shins and clipping its dark-green stem with a decisive snap. “You’d be amazed at how many kids will come up to a pumpkin and give it a hug. You don’t see kids doing that to tomatoes and cucumbers, or even apples.”
Heisler paints pictures and writes short stories about pumpkins. He gives them names. And, of course, he carves them. But he wants people to understand that they can cook pumpkins, too.
The fruits marry well with spices and meat, especially beef and pork, Heisler says. That makes them a versatile contender for soups, stews and tomato-based pasta sauces.
Depending on the variety, Heisler also eats pumpkins for breakfast, sweetened with honey or maple syrup; bakes them; grills them; sautes them; and grates them, raw, into salads and slaw.
He likes to experiment in the kitchen, and he shares his informal recipes with customers. He prefers to saute the Caribbean pumpkin in olive oil and garlic, adding butter and white wine, then scallops, and serving the mixture over noodles with chopped parsley. He adds the Lakota or Red Kuri squash to chili, lending it a rich color. He dubs another squash A Lot of Wonder; according to the catalogue, it’s Mister Stripey, but Heisler doesn’t support that name because, as botanical fruits, “all squash are female.” Pale yellow with green stripes, it becomes a breakfast dish: cooked in a skillet, then stuffed with a mixture of tomato, eggs and apple cider, and served with hash browns.
The enthusiasm has caught on among his regulars, who come often, linger and talk about pumpkins with the zeal of converts. Author Charles Fenyvesi, who lives nearby, is a sort of squash ambassador: He boasts of once persuading a caravan of visitors from Southeast Asia to buy a half-dozen Lakotas, his favorites.
“There’s a strange thing about pumpkins,” he says. “They make you feel more sociable. Maybe it’s the looks: You don’t feel that you are in the supermarket when you are in the company of pumpkins.”
Today Fenyvesi announces that his wife recently made a lentil soup with the Delicata. Then he wanders through the market, speaking of the squash in reverent tones. Pausing in front of the Marina di Chioggia, a dark green Italian variety with scalloped skin, he says he imagines it in Botticelli’s famous painting “The Birth of Venus,” in which the goddess rises from the sea in a scallop shell. Turning around, he nods at another row of brightly colored squash. “The French Impressionists should have been painting them,” he says.
But arriving at a display of peanut pumpkins — pinkish, dotted with bumpy, crusty growths that resemble peanut shells — he stops short: “This one I cannot make a case for.”
Joyce Gearhart of Bethesda holds a Lakota in one arm and a Red Hubbard in the other. She came to the market for the first time last year after noticing it on a bike ride. Now she’s on a first-name basis with Heisler and comes every month or so during the fall to buy pumpkins and squash by the case. Her garage, she says, has come to resemble “a squash grocery store.”
“This place is a gold mine for foodies,” says Gearhart, who uses the squash for several different recipes: curried, with chickpeas; on pizza; roasted, with kale; griddled, for tostadas.
Inside the market, Gearhart stacks her purchases next to the counter where a 60-pound Cinderella pumpkin, squat and dark orange, is ensconced like a portly dog. Lining the wooden shelves are jars of pickled beets and green tomatoes, along with strawberry preserves and — of course — pumpkin butter made by a local company. Next to the register, a carousel is stocked with note cards that bear Heisler’s colorful illustrations of pumpkins and squash.
As the afternoon turns chilly and rain begins to pelt the market’s tin roof, a slow-cooker simmers with a sausage-white-bean soup, hearty with Red Kuri squash and kale from Heisler’s fields. “Do you have a recipe for the soup?” Gearhart asks Heisler.
“Not written down,” he says.
Heisler won’t disclose his total acreage or how many tons of squash he grows annually, but a recent order from the Baltimore restaurant Woodberry Kitchen gives a hint of his scale: 600 pounds of white acorn squash, followed by another order for 960 pounds of Red Kuri and Pink Lady.
Come Halloween, Heisler will spend hours carving pumpkins, including some of the pumpkin characters he has dreamed up over the years. He is particularly fond of the Boo Sisters, a singing trio whose hit song is a bluesy-country rendition of “Please Don’t Blow Me Out.” Of all the fruit he grows, cooks and carves — hulking pumpkins and petite squash, with textures mottled, smooth and scalloped — which does he like best?
Like a proud parent, Heisler demurs. “I don’t have favorites,” he says. “If I did, I wouldn’t be growing 40 kinds.”
Sander is a freelance journalist and writer living in the District. Heisler will join the Free Range live chat with readers at noon on Wednesday at live.washingtonpost.com.