I wasn't on a mission to make the best pumpkin pie ever. I was on a mission to grow pumpkins.
The pie came later, when I realized I would have to do something with all that fruit. And because of my inability to focus on pie alone, I had to come up with other uses for my harvest, some of which may or may not include jack-o-lantern carvings and artfully arranged lawn decor involving corn stalks and straw bales.
Pumpkins, it turns out, are extremely easy to grow, but they take up a lot of room. Their long vines will stretch across everything, including all the other garden plants, out into the lawn and up and over the fence. The longer their growing season and the larger the pumpkin variety, the further the vines will wander. It is hilarious, actually, to find pumpkins forming on long vines that crawled between rows of beans or corn. Planting pumpkins or cucumbers, or any vining plant alongside corn is actually a good idea because the sharp, sticky prickles on the stems are said to discourage raccoons and other small critters from walking among the stalks.
I knew when I was choosing pumpkin varieties that I wasn't interested in breaking any records. I didn't want 'Atlantic Giants' or 'Big Max' taking up more space than I had to spare. I wasn't looking to haul a giant gourd off to a weigh-in. I simply wanted a good pie and maybe something to carve a face into.
As I browsed the seed catalogs, I learned there was a lot more to pumpkins. Besides the giant varieties, there were varieties cultivated just for their carving attributes, others touted as 'Super Sweet' for pies and soups and one of my personal favorites if not for its name alone, 'Early Sweet Sugar Pie.' There was even a multi-tasker among the group called 'Triple Treat' that bragged it was great for pies, carving and seed-roasting. Who doesn't love to suck on crispy, salty pumpkin seeds until the outer shell is soft enough to crack open to reveal the kernel inside?
And although I was originally looking for a pie-pumpkin, I couldn't resist tiny 'Jack Be Little' because anything miniature is so darn cute. Nor could I resist the ivory-skinned Lumina. It was new and different and would look eerily macabre with a face and a candle.
My search for pumpkins led me to nutrition. Before the word antioxidants began showing up everywhere, I learned that the beta-carotene and vitamin A contained in orange-colored vegetables was a valuable nutrient. According to university based research on nutrition, beta-carotene is thought to reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancers, protect against heart disease and even fight the affects of aging. As long as you don't deep fry it and slather it with mayonnaise, that is.
I started growing pumpkins, and lots of them. At the end of summer, when the vines began to wither and die and the fruit deepened in color, I decided it was time to make a pie. And I learned a few things.
I learned that pumpkin shells are very hard and nearly impossible to cut into without some sort of sharp, motorized device. To lessen the risk of losing fingers, I learned the best way to extract the flesh is to roast the whole pumpkin until it softens, but not so much that it turns to mush.
I learned that pumpkin flesh can be canned for winter soups and stews. It does, however, need to be pressure canned, because unlike high acid fruits and some tomatoes, hot water canning is not adequate for eliminating organisms that cause botulism. I sliced and diced raw pumpkin, not an easy feat, into small cubes, filled the jars, added boiling water and what I got were several jars of wonderfully preserved orange goodness. For future pies, I pureed roasted pumpkin, put it in plastic bags and then into the freezer. In my personal pie-making process, I doubled the spices that went into the recipe, otherwise I thought the pies were rather bland.
Even with all the preservation, I still had plenty of pumpkins left to give away to friends, carve for Halloween and decorate for fall.
If you are thinking of growing pumpkins next season, start early. Pumpkins like a long growing season, 110 to 140 days, depending on the variety. You can start them indoors in early May or plant them directly into the garden as soon as the ground heats up in spring and there are no expected frosts. They need at least six hours of direct sunlight a day and fed monthly throughout the season. Pumpkins are mostly water, so keep them well hydrated if the season is dry. Squash bugs love pumpkins and mine had a few, but they didn't keep me from having a huge harvest. They can be treated with chemicals, but I preferred to look for the egg masses on the undersides of the leaves and destroy them before they had a chance to become full grown bugs.
Of course it's more work than simply opening a can, but who gains satisfaction from that?