Jack-o'-lanterns, pies, and trebuchet fodder: Picking the best pumpkins for 2024
OCTOBER 27, 2023
Pumpkins are, hands down, America’s most popular winter squash. Most of us had our first experience with sharp objects when carving them for Halloween, and as teens, some of us may have used them as projectiles—either hurling them from speeding cars or launching them with homemade catapults. They’re often cultivated to win size competitions, and of course, they make excellent pies, soups, and cookies.
Today, we’re going to celebrate one of our favorite holidays not by TP-ing our neighbor’s house (again) but by giving you the scoop on pumpkins so you can make room for them in next season’s garden.
The origins of the pumpkin
A North American cucurbit, pumpkins were first cultivated by indigenous people as far back as 9,000 years ago. Every part of a pumpkin is edible if you’re adventurous, and they were baked, dried, mashed, and even made into flour. The meat itself was often preserved to weave into mats. Don’t believe us? Check out this video.
The Iroquois and Cherokee used pumpkins as part of the traditional, symbiotic Three Sisters garden, along with maize and pole beans. The large leaves and sprawling vines would serve as a living mulch for the other plants, suppressing weeds and suppressing evaporation.
While the pumpkin is a North American squash, we can trace its name’s origins back to ancient Greece. There, similar squash were called pepon, which translates to “melon-like”. According to The Etymology Nerd, Romans converted pepon to peponem, and much later, the French called them pompons. The English called them pumpions until eventually, they became pumpkins.
And here we are.
How jack-o'-lanterns became a thing
For a little background on the tradition of carving faces into pumpkins, we decided to turn to the Ancient Alie—uh, History Channel, the ultimate source of folklore, urban legends, and crazy-haired “experts”. The story begins in Ireland where, sometime in the 1800s, a tale circulated about a man named Jack who twice tricked the Devil and in the end, was doomed to roam the earth in limbo. To light his way, he carried a burning ember in a carved-out turnip and was referred to in stories as “Jack of the Lantern” or, in true Irish style, “Jack-o’-Lantern”.
The Irish began carving ghoulish faces into turnips, potatoes, and giant mangel beets on Samhain Eve when the veil between the living and the dead was thinnest. The idea was to ward off wandering spirits.
Irish immigrants discovered that pumpkins were perfect substitutes for root vegetables given their size and ease of carving, and the lumps of burning coal that made the biggest of the tubers glow were replaced by candles.
Traditions evolve, and now in the 21st century, Jack-o’-Lanterns often take on the forms and faces of Disney princesses and Harry Potter heroes, and sharp kitchen knives are often replaced by Sharpies or elaborate carving kits. But it wouldn’t be Halloween without pumpkins.
Which pumpkins are best for jack-o'-lanterns?
If you go to the grocery store anytime after October 1, you’ll see enormous bins of pumpkins, and given that they don’t come cheap, you’ll probably spend a lot of time choosing the right one. The ideal carving pumpkin makes a hollow thwock! when you knock on it, a dead giveaway that it’s got solid walls and a suitable hollow center. You’ll also want to be sure the stem is large and sturdy enough to serve as a handle for the lid you'll carve from its top
What if you want to grow your own Halloween pumpkins from seed? We’ve got you covered. Here are our recommended pumpkin varieties or carving:
These round, smooth-skinned heirlooms were bred specifically for use as carved decorations. They have uniform, deep-orange skin, and their walls are thin enough for easy carving, yet thick enough to produce delicious flesh for baking. Fruits can grow up to 20 pounds each on 15’ trailing vines, so make sure you have room for them to spread out.
These white-skinned pumpkins are very much like standard Jack-o'-Lanterns but for their color and slightly smaller size. If you want to go for the undead look, leave them on the vine a little longer and their skin will take on a bluish tinge. Like the varieties below, they’re also great for painting.
Which pumpkins are best for painting?
If getting pumpkin guts all over your house isn’t your idea of seasonal fun, or you’re not ready to trust your toddler with your Henkel knife set, we recommend you try one of these varieties:
These 3” to 5” globe-shaped, flat-bottomed pumpkins are a hit with little kids armed with paint pens and a little imagination. Due to their small size and density, they’ll last longer than their larger, carved cousins, so your family can get into the spirit as soon as the leaves begin to fall. As a bonus, these little guys are candidates for container gardens, as their vines are bushier than they are long.
We had trouble figuring out which category is best for the Connecticut field pumpkin because they’re as versatile as they come. One of the oldest heirloom varieties, they’ve been around since the 16th century. They’re the classic commercial Jack-o’-Lantern pumpkin, but we’ve put them here because if you paint rather than carve them, they’ll last long enough for you to turn them into pies, or to can them for later use.
The mostly round to vertically-oblong fruits can weigh in between 15 and 20 pounds, and you can count on about 3-5 fruits per vine.
Which Pumpkins Are Ideal for Fall Decorations?
If you want a long-lasting variety, or you built a smaller trebuchet, you’ll want to choose one of the denser, smaller pumpkins, like these:
These tiny 3”x2” squash can last up to a year if properly stored. You’ll get about 10 per vine, and they’re great for training on a trellis if you don’t have much space. If you’re not worried about longevity, carve a hole in the top and use them as festive candlesticks.
While they have identical growing profiles, their ghost-white coloring sets them apart from the popular Jack Be Little minis. They tend to last only about six months in storage, but they’re very pretty decorations as-is or for crafting. If you’re into messes, spray them with clear adhesive and cover them in glitter.
What If I Want the Biggest Pumpkin Ever?
If you want to throw your weight around and cultivate a scale-busting, blue-ribbon-at-the-fair orange monster, you can 86 the rest of your garden (and both your neighbors’) by growing these big fatties:
Easily grown to 300 pounds but with a potential for tipping the scales at well over 800, Atlantic Giants are the grand poobah of the pumpkin family. Your kid wants a new car? Slap some wheels on one of these puppies and hand them the keys. At least they’ll grow for miles.
Make plenty of room for the 25’ vines and for the crowds of lookie-loos waiting to ogle your prize pumpkin.
Similar to the Atlantic Giant but with a paler skin, Pacific Giant pumpkins can compete with their East Coast cousins. They were developed in the Pacific Northwest by hardcore hobbyists from commercial Atlantic Giant stock.
JUST GIMME PIE PUMPKINS!
OK, we get it; you’re probably one of those curmudgeons who turns off the lights and hoards the candy for themselves. Or maybe you plan on putting all your energy into costumes and hitting all the big parties, so you’re just phoning in the Halloween decor this year. You can still pick up some pumpkin seeds and grow plenty of squash for pie or other dishes, whether you plan on enjoying it with a nice hangover or saving it for Turkey Day.
While any pumpkin can make excellent desserts, soups, or sides, here are our favorites for kitchen magic:
This large, squat, brownish-orange squash is known for its buttery-sweet flesh that’s so delicate you can eat it raw. Developed in the Caribbean and sometimes marketed as the Castilla squash, it’s become a favorite of chefs around the world. The Fairytale’s blossoms are also ideal for stuffing and baking.
These babies can grow up to 20 pounds but given their shape, they have a larger footprint than other pumpkins their size.
These 7” to 8” squash are extremely versatile, and the vines are fairly prolific. One of our friends stuffs them with risotto and vegetables and serves them as individual servings at dinner parties; her guests just scoop out the insides and go to town. They also make fantastic pumpkin soup and—as the name implies—pies.
They may look like zombies on the outside with their sage-green skin, but inside their flesh is bright, creamy, stringless gold. Blue Jarrahdales are also great keepers, and they make excellent fall decorations. The vines, which can grow up to 15’ long, will produce up to five 10” to 12” fruits. Trust us, you’ll love these unusual heirloom pumpkins.
Got Seed Needs? Get Your Pumpkin Seeds from Us!
People are serious about their pumpkins, whether they’re growing miniature Baby Boos or behemoth Giants. Pumpkins are ambassadors of gardening for growing families, and they produce results that anyone can enjoy.
But if you plan on growing pumpkins for next fall, you need to make every plant count. That’s why we only offer the freshest, non-GMO pumpkin seeds available. Give us a shout if you want to place an order, or if you have any questions about our products!