I've just returned from a week in New England and its kaleidoscope of russet, crimson and rose-gold foliage. I took countless pictures, stuffed my pockets with brilliantly colored leaves and loaded my suitcase with apple-cider doughnuts. But, with a month of autumn still ahead, how can I bring that magical glow home to my garden?
Easy: Do as the New Englanders and pile on the pumpkins. They're not just for Halloween!
Everywhere my husband and I traveled through Vermont and New Hampshire, we saw gardens and porches decorated with squashes and gourds.
"It's a celebration of the harvest — we have a lot of farmers around here," said Jacquie French, garden center manager at Woodstock Farmers' Market in Woodstock, Vt., a picture-perfect town dating to 1761. "Squashes and gourds complement the fall colors. People stack them to look like snowmen; they arrange the little ones like you arrange flowers. It's really a creative, artsy thing."
For the record, pumpkins are squashes, gourds are gourds, and all belong to the Cucurbitaceae family, along with melons and cucumbers. In Woodstock, funky looking specialty pumpkins and gourds, with names like Red Warty Thing and Speckled Swan, have surged in popularity, French said. Good old sugar pumpkins remain the staple for a constellation of autumn treats: pancakes, puddings and pies, risottos, chips and fries.
Some fun New England pumpkin facts: They're the official state fruit of New Hampshire, which holds the Guinness World Record for most lit jack-o'-lanterns (more than 30,000) in one place. Towns and villages hold dozens of festivals in their honor, including the Pumpkin Chuckin' Festival in Stowe, Vt., where contestants use homemade trebuchets — catapult-type devices — to send their squashes flying for cash prizes.
If you plan to use squashes and gourds to add fall flair through Thanksgiving, experts suggest simple tips to keep them looking fresh longer. First, wipe them down with a mild bleach solution (one part bleach to 10 parts water, or use disinfectant wipes) to keep mold and squirrels at bay. You also can coat them with WD-40 or a thin sheen of petroleum jelly to add shine and another layer of protection.
If we get an early frost, cover them up or bring them inside.
Want to grow your own ornamental squashes for next fall? Start planning now. These tips come from Joe Parr, director of horticulture at Busch Gardens, who has grown hundreds of heirloom squashes and gourds for the theme park's displays.
• Purchase heirloom seeds available through a number of companies, including Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. (Joe got his through Local Harvest, localharvest.org, in New Hampshire.)
• Prepare a large sunny area with good air circulation for planting in February or March by adding compost and other organic material.
• Fertilize! The University of Florida recommends a 6:6:6 mix. Joe used 20:20:20.
• Water using micro irrigation if possible, so the water goes to the vines' roots. Wet leaves invite disease.
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• Male flowers have long stems; female flowers, which produce the fruits, have short stems with a bulging ovary beneath the bloom. If the female blooms drop and the ovary rots, the flowers may not be getting pollinated. Hand pollinate by using a cotton swap to dab pollen from the male anther onto the female stigma.
• When the leaves and vines die back in June or July, pick the fruits and store in a cool, dry place (don't stack them) until fall.
• For more squash-growing information, visit UF's pumpkin website at edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mv116.
Contact Penny Carnathan at firstname.lastname@example.org; visit her blog, digginfloridadirt.com; join in the chat on Facebook, Diggin Florida Dirt; and follow @DigginPenny.