Master Gardener: Decorating, eating and composting for a sustainable Halloween
Halloween is coming. It is time to bring pumpkins home from farmers’ fields, farmers’ markets, supermarkets or your favorite garden shop. Most of the pumpkins carried home will be carving pumpkins.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 2 billion pounds of pumpkins are grown each year, and most are not eaten. Instead, the fruits are crafted into jack-o’-lanterns, which end up in landfills. There, they contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
For a more sustainable Halloween, consider decorating whole carving or pie pumpkins and later cooking with them. Or, eat the cooked leftovers from carving jack-o’-lanterns.
Decorate whole carving or pie pumpkins with nontoxic paints. Create scary or funny faces on pumpkin surfaces to frighten or delight. After the holiday, wash and bake. Your Halloween decorations will make lovely Thanksgiving or Christmas dishes.
Cooking or baking with carving pumpkins can be a challenge. They are more watery than pie pumpkins, but there are ways to compensate. For example, you can make pumpkin puree from fresh carving pumpkins if you first place the flesh in a dish, lightly cover and refrigerate for a few hours. This allows excess moisture to separate. Expect about one cup of puree for every pound of pumpkin, and know that pumpkin puree can be frozen for later use. It will last about a year.
If cooking or baking with pumpkins that have the best taste and texture is important to you, grab a pie pumpkin. They are smaller, darker, denser and sweeter than carving pumpkins, and their flesh is less stringy.
Pumpkin insides left over from carving or pureeing both jack-o’-lantern and pie pumpkin varieties make a wonderful broth. Use the broth as a soup base, and add carrots, celery and other veggies for a delicious dish. Or, make cider by stirring in cinnamon, nutmeg and mulled apple cider into the broth.
Don’t forget the seeds! Rinse and dry pumpkin seeds and toss them with a dash of vegetable oil and your favorite seasonings. Spread seeds on a baking sheet. Bake at 300 degrees until the seeds are golden brown, turning occasionally.
No matter if a pumpkin is used for cooking, decorating or both, careful selection, preparation and storage is important. Choose pumpkins with 1- to 2-inch long firm, green stems. Green stems are an indicator of how recently the pumpkins were harvested. Another freshness test involves pressing your thumbs into the bottom of the fruit. If it flexes or gives, it is not fresh and will rot sooner. Also select pumpkins with hard, dull and blemish-free shells not easily punctured by a fingernail. Pass by pumpkins with soft spots, mold, freezer burn marks, wrinkles or cuts.
If you are picking a carving pumpkin, make sure it sits well on a flat surface before purchasing. Carving or baking pumpkins alike should not be carried by their stems.
Washing and disinfecting pumpkins removes fungal spores and bacteria which may be on their exterior. This can help pumpkins keep longer. Use a dilute bleach solution, about 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water.
After cleaning, place your pumpkins in a cool, dry place with good air circulation. If properly stored, uncarved pumpkins can last for months. To help carved pumpkins last, coat cuts with petroleum jelly, and use battery-operated candles for illumination. The heat from traditional candles can cook the pumpkin’s flesh, shortening its life.
Remember to keep pumpkins off the ground to prevent moisture accumulation and rot. An upturned flower pot works well for this and is attractive in a fall display.
If cooking and baking with pumpkins is not for you, there are alternative ways of keeping them out of the landfill. Use pumpkin Halloween decorations as livestock feed, or add them to the compost pile. If you compost your fall pumpkin decorations over winter, your garden will thank you come spring.
Picking the perfect pumpkin
The perfect pumpkin is a personal choice. Some go for an ideal look, seeking a bright orange carving pumpkin with no irregularities. Others bring home misshapen pumpkins, finding them more charming. Selecting the misfit pumpkin can have benefits. A friend harvested one this year which looks like an owl — no carving needed.
When selecting a pumpkin which resonates with you, some varieties to guide your way are Jack O’ Lantern, Lumina, Jack Be Little, Lil’ Pump-Ke-Mon, Baby Boo, Casper, Baby Pam, Sugar Pie, New England Pie and Musquee de Provence.
If carving is what you want, a bright orange Jack O’ Lantern pumpkin is what you need. This variety was bred for carving, but it has a fine taste and will do for baking as well. For a nontraditional carving pumpkin, get a Lumina. At about 10 pounds, they are half of the size of Jack O’ Lantern pumpkins. The rind on Lumina pumpkins is as pale as can be, and the flesh inside is shockingly orange in comparison.
To decorate with pumpkins without having to carving them, check out smaller varieties like Jack Be Little, Lil’ Pump-Ke-Mon, Baby Boo or Casper. They sit perfectly on mantles, tables, shelves and more. Jack Be Little’s radiant orange color will brighten the house for months. Plus, they can be stored after the holidays and used for cooking or baking. For something different, grab a Lil’ Pump-Ke-Mon. They are cream-colored with light orange stripes. Baby Boo and Casper stand out too; they are pale as ghosts.
For baking a crowd-pleasing pumpkin pie, look for Baby Pam, Sugar Pie, New England Pie or Musquee de Provence (also called Fairytale) pumpkins. This lineup consists of the best and sweetest choices for baking. If you do not find them this year, consider growing one or all of them for next year.