In my house, with my überimaginative young son, Halloween season starts about mid-August. We visit the pop-up Halloween stores about early September, and his costume choice always is a taxing decision for him. So it was only natural that when we first moved to Florida over four years ago from up north, we bought a pumpkin two or three weeks before Halloween and carved a jack o'lantern, then proudly displayed it outside our door as we had always done.
I was surprised to watch our jack o'lantern blacken and rot over the following couple of days. There were a few ants around it, too.
That led me to investigate for this week's column what kind of pumpkin business there is in Florida. Turns out, there's very little because of the weather. "It's a timing issue," says Crystal Snodgrass, the commercial vegetable extension agent for the Manatee County Extension Office. "Pumpkins are most wanted in October, and you need three or four months for them to grow. That means you would have to plant them in July, and that's not a good time for almost anything to be planted here."
Pumpkins are part of a plant group called cucurbits, which includes zucchini, squash and watermelons. Those items are all traditionally planted during other times of the year in the state. Plus, cucurbits are particularly susceptible to fungus and bacteria - both of which flourish here in our humid state.
Still, there are some farms in north Florida that grow pumpkins, and backyard growers can attempt to cultivate them. "They can grow here, but they require care," said Nicole Pinson, Hillsborough County Extension's urban horticulture agent and master gardening coordinator. The best time in Central Florida to plant pumpkins is February, March, or August. They'll traditionally grow in three to four months - so you probably won't grow them for Halloween festivities but perhaps for pie, bread or seeds for snacking.
Backyard growers want to choose their pumpkin varieties carefully, said Pinson. Heirlooms, Connecticut Field, Cinderella, and the cleverly named Jack O'Lantern varieties thrive better in Central Florida, she explained.
Local gardeners also should make sure to have their pumpkin plant pollinated. That requires watching your pesticide use, which can reduce the chance of pollination. Pinson said it's possible with some practice for gardeners to pollinate the plants themselves (who knew?).
If you're growing pumpkins and spot a particular insect or disease problem, stop by your local extension office for help, Pinson advised.
Pinson also finds interest in gourd growing; her office has even offered classes on the topic. Gourds are in the same cucurbit planting group as pumpkins.
Although commercial pumpkin growth is not common in Florida - Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania appear to be big states for that market - that shouldn't discourage motivated gardeners from trying pumpkin growing, said Pinson. "Pumpkins are nutritious and fun to grow," she said. I learned online that a ¼ cup of pumpkin can supply you with a daily dose of vitamin A. Plus, pumpkin has very little sodium and provides fiber and vitamin C.
In my house, we enjoy the sensory experience of scooping out the pumpkin "guts" and then picking out the seeds, adding a little salt, and baking them for about 25 minutes in a 325-degree oven. Those roasted pumpkin seeds are a fun Halloween-time treat.
So what do Snodgrass and Pinson advise regarding jack o'lantern carving in Florida?
Don't carve until right before Halloween. Otherwise, you're inviting fungi and insects to invade.
I also read online of a way to essentially "embalm" your pumpkin with a bleach solution and petroleum jelly to make your carving last for about a week. If we feel adventurous enough to try it, I'll let you know how it goes.