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334355

Best in show: Pumpkins

A California festival celebrates the wild world of pumpkins and the people who love them.

Pumpkins may have their roots in ancient Central and South America, but they’ve been on a world tour for millennia. As people traveled with seeds, cultures across six continents adopted this member of the Cucurbitaceae family and cultivated their own local varieties.

Image: Clockwise from top left.

1. “My pumpkins are running all over the place,” says Makeda Ori Cheatom, founder of the WorldBeat Cultural Center in San Diego. Reaching about 40 pounds at maturity, the ‘Pink Banana’ is especially loved by kids who visit the center’s garden. “They can hug them, hold them, and eat them.”

2. Sisters Ida and Edi picked a ‘Spookie’ pumpkin from their yard.

3. Jeff Fiorovich grows the variegated ‘Night Fire’ pumpkin in his organic patch in Watsonville, California. It can weigh anywhere from 30 to 100 pounds. “One thing is for sure, ‘Night Fire’ is a showstopper,” Fiorovich says.

4. Shannon McCabe of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds first encountered ‘Calabaza Abujo’ at a market in Peru.

Today, one event brings together the international community of pumpkin growers: The National Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa, California. At this expo dedicated to all kinds of heirloom crops, pumpkins (and other squash) are the main event, lining the aisles and piled up to create a two-story tower. But more striking than anything is the sheer variety on display. Local schoolchildren and farmers gather alongside pumpkin aficionados from Hawaii, Yugoslavia, and Peru. Bumpy or striped, pocket-size or so big they require a pickup truck, pumpkins are clearly citizens of the world.

Start with good seeds

Fall is high season for pumpkins, but to harvest your own, you’ll need to buy seeds by spring (check out rareseeds.com or reneesgarden.com), then plant in early summer. Some varieties need four months or more to mature.

Prep your soil

Before planting, amend your soil with compost and composted chicken manure that have the right nutrients for pumpkins. Start seeds in the garden at the same time you set out tomato transplants. Soil temperature should be about 70°F. Sow seeds in well-drained soil in a sunny spot, following directions on the seed packet to allow the right amount of space between plants. In cold climates (Zones 2 through 5), give plants a head start by sowing seeds indoors and transplanting to the garden in early summer.

Care for growing pumpkins

Healthy leaves provide the nourishment needed to produce lots of pumpkins. The large leaves also protect the fruit from sunburn and help control weeds. Regular, deep watering (up to several times a week, depending on your climate and soil) will keep plants healthy. Drip irrigation is best.

Pumpkins need pollinators to set fruit, so let bees do their work. Don’t use insecticides.

Pick off squash bugs (they look like stinkbugs) and their golden-orange eggs, which may appear on the undersides of leaves. Control powdery mildew with sulfur dust or spray. Contact with wet soil can cause the fruit to rot, so once pumpkins have formed on the vine, set them on a paper plate or a bed of straw.

When to harvest

Pumpkins are ready for picking when the colors develop and the stem color changes from green to tan. Cut the stem 3 to 6 inches from the fruit, and leave the pumpkin in place for a day or two. You’ll notice some sticky sap at the cut. That’s OK; it prevents fungi from entering the cut.

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