Great Pumpkins: First hard frost in St. Lawrence County could ruin any still on the ground
Saturday, October 12, 2013 - 8:31 am

By PAUL HETZLER

In the Peanuts comic strip, the precocious, blanket-toting Linus waited faithfully for The Great Pumpkin all night on Halloween in spite of being disappointed every year. Perhaps his unwavering belief in the mythical pumpkin was spurred on by the fact that almost every year brings the world a bigger “great pumpkin” of the sort one can measure and—at least potentially—eat.

Of the approximately 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins grown annually in the U.S., only a very few are grown for size. Primarily within the last 30 years, giant pumpkin enthusiasts (that's regular-size people, giant produce) have developed varieties that attain jaw-dropping proportions. From a nearly 500-lb. world record in 1981 to a half-ton in 1996 and a 2,000-lb. record in 2012, today's giant pumpkins would be a dream come true for Linus.

Being the scholarly lad he was, Linus probably knew that pumpkins are actually a type of winter squash, one of many varieties first selected for and cultivated by Native Americans. Squash, in fact, is an Algonquin word adopted by Europeans. We chose the Greek-based term 'pumpkin' to describe the ribbed orange variety, mostly because “The Great Squash” didn't have the right ring to it.

Today's small hard pie pumpkins and Hubbard squash are among the many squash types that the Iroquois were growing in this area at the time of first European contact. The Iroquois would dry strips of pumpkin and squash for use in late winter after the storage life of whole squashes had run its course. Had the old-time Iroquois had dehumidifiers and thermostats, their pumpkins and squash could have lasted all winter.

Successful storage actually begins in the field or garden. Your pumpkins and squash will last longer if you bring them in before the first hard frost (below 29F). Always pick them up supported from the bottom, and never carry them by the stem; if that breaks, rot will set in. For pumpkins, a 10-day hardening-off treatment of 80-85F at 80% humidity will help harden the rind and prolong storage life. This treatment isn't necessary for butternut, turban and Hubbard, and will actually harm acorn squash.

In terms of storage conditions, the critical numbers are 50 and 70. Never cooler than 50F or more humid than 70%. The ideal numbers are 60F and 60% —pretty easy to remember. Store pumpkins and squash away from apples, which produce ethylene gas that will hasten ripening and shorten storage life. Check stored squash every few weeks, as one rotten one can spread decay to others.

Under ideal conditions acorn squash will store for five to eight weeks. Pie pumpkins, as well as butternut and buttercup squash, can go through the winter, and it's not unheard of for a Hubbard to last into the following summer. Because the record-breaking pumpkins of today have Hubbard genetics, I'd expect they could last quite a while. But who's going to build a storage room around a one-ton pumpkin?

It would seem this agricultural achievement may have been predicted over 50 years ago by little Linus. Maybe I should revisit those old comics to read what else the child philosopher had to say.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.