Food

Pumpkins

Story and Media by
Wendy Wesser
Media by
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Written by
Wendy Wesser

I’ve never been a huge fan of crowds so it had been about ten years since I braved the Alaska State Fair experience. It took an opportunity to see Phillip Phillips in concert to get me there, and a rainy afternoon couldn’t dampen his ability to entertain the enthusiastic sold-out crowd. But, I was also glad I braved the Alaska State Fair crowds for another reason. There was something new to me at the fair ... giant, hunormous pumpkins! Worthy of a word from the Urban Dictionary, and a bit reminiscent of the movie, The Blob. Wow, they were impressive! This year’s winner, with a 1,182 pound entry, was Dale Marshall of Anchorage, beating out J.D. Megchelsen of Nikiski, whose 1,289 pound pumpkin was disqualified because it was damaged. Mardie Robb from Palmer was also growing the humongous gourds. Unfortunately, her 435.5 pound pumpkin cracked this year making it ineligible for the competition. It takes a lot of dedication to grow competitive fair pumpkins. Considering that our growing season is at least a month shorter than other areas in the country, our growers are doing amazing. The current world record, set in 2012, is a 2,009 pounder grown by Ron Wallace of Rhode Island. Just imagine the size pumpkins Alaskans could grow with another month added to our growing season.

When I saw those pumpkins at the fair I thought to myself, “Why don’t we grow more pumpkins in our home gardens?” My favorite Thanksgiving treat is pumpkin pie and how much better would it be if it was made with our own home-grown organic pumpkins? We might not be able to use the same methods as states with warmer climates can, but we certainly can grow pumpkins in Alaska. 

How our pumpkins grow

First you need to pick out your seeds carefully. Decide what type of pumpkin you want to grow. There are big differences in pumpkins grown for eating and those for ornamental use. If you are not going for the prize for the largest pumpkin at the state fair then you probably don’t want to start with Atlantic Giant seeds. The Cooperative Extension Service recommends Spirit and Autumn Gold for Southcentral gardens and several other varieties for gardeners in the warmer areas of Interior Alaska. Choose a variety of pumpkin that will mature in less than 100 days. Most outdoor garden soil temperatures in Alaska are far too cold for pumpkin seeds to reliably germinate in, so start your seeds indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost. Keep your seedlings well watered and fertilize weekly. The seedlings will be very tender, so harden them off and be sure there will be no more frosty nights before planting them in a raised garden bed with rich soil in a sunny location. 

I have had success growing Jack-Be-Little pumpkins in my outdoor garden with no protection, but for the larger pumpkins, planting your seedlings through clear plastic is advised. Pumpkins appreciate warm soil. If your garden is in a windy area some wind protection will be needed. Pumpkin vines can take up a lot of space so if you don’t want to give up space in a garden consider using a large pot or plant them in repurposed tires.

Pollination

Like its cousin, the cucumber, pumpkins have male and female flowers on the same vines. You can recognize the female flowers because they will have the beginnings of the pumpkin at their base. However, if the female flower is not pollinated, the tiny green pumpkin will not develop. If there are not enough bees around to perform the necessary pollination you may have to do the process yourself. Take the anther from one or two male flowers and gently rub it on the stigma of the female flower to complete the pollination process. This does not guarantee success, but your chances of growing a sweet orange pumpkin by the end of the season will improve. If the hand pollination works, the female flower will die off in a day or two and the fruit will begin its growth. 

Pumpkins are heavy feeders so they need regular watering and fertilizing. Once two or three pumpkins are growing well on a vine remove the remaining female flowers and cut the end of the vine, so the plant’s energy can be devoted to maturing the fruits.

By the way, do you know why pumpkins are considered a fruit rather than a vegetable? In strict botanical terms, anything produced by a flower is a fruit. This means all squashes, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers are actually fruits. Even green beans are considered a fruit, botanically speaking. This really is simply a scientific distinction however, and if we prefer to call green beans and squash vegetables, that is perfectly acceptable.

Harvest

In Alaska, we can’t wait to harvest our pumpkins until after cold weather kills the vines like gardeners in the lower 48 do. Be very careful to not damage their soft skins and be sure to leave some of the stem on the fruit when picking. Leaving the stem on is not just for looks, it helps increase the longevity of your stored pumpkin. Partially ripened pumpkins can continue to ripen safely inside. After harvesting, store your pumpkins in a warm place for one week to allow them to cure. After that, keep them at 50 to 55 degrees for best storage results. If you don’t have ideal storage conditions you can process your freshly harvested pumpkins and freeze or can the puree for later use. I find ulus work great to scrape the pulp out of a quartered pie pumpkin. 

Time to Enjoy

Pumpkins aren’t just for pies and Jack-o-lanterns. Pumpkin can be used in soups, breads, cakes, cookies, puddings, pancakes, etc… Our imagination is the only limit to its versatility. Alaska Brewing Company has come out with Alaskan Pumpkin Porter this year. What pumpkin treat or treats will you be enjoying during your Thanksgiving feast? Below is a favorite recipe shared by my co-worker for the best roasted pumpkin seeds ever.

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds - by Carla Day

1 lb (about 2 cups) raw hulless pumpkin seeds

5 T Johnny’s Salad and Pasta Elegance Seasoning (or any seasoning of your choice)

Rinse seeds well and remove any black ones and other debris.

Put seeds in a large glass bowl and cover with salted boiling water. Cover the bowl and let sit overnight or 7-8 hours. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Drain the seeds well and add the seasoning. Test your seasoning by roasting a small handful first. Spread seeds in a single layer on a non-stick baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes until you see no signs of green left.

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Pumpkins

Food

Author

Wendy Wesser

Writing, history, gardening, and traveling are a few of Wendy Wesser’s interests. She grew up in Alaska, living as far south as Metlakatla and as far north as Fairbanks. Her family’s history of six generations in Alaska reaches back to the Gold Rush years. She loves reading, hearing, and sharing Alaskan stories of newcomers and oldtimers alike—Last Frontier Magazine has provided her the opportunity to work in this very venue.Alternate bio for articles: Wendy currently resides in Wasilla, Alaska, but has also lived in Metlakatla, Ketchikan, Juneau, Anchorage, and Fairbanks. She enjoys sharing her life experiences of hiking, skiing, gardening, winter camping, etc…, as well as helping other Alaskans (old, new, current, or past) to share their own tales. Since she always says, “Yes!” to the next adventure, her backlog of stories is varied and almost endless. 


I’ve never been a huge fan of crowds so it had been about ten years since I braved the Alaska State Fair experience. It took an opportunity to see Phillip Phillips in concert to get me there, and a rainy afternoon couldn’t dampen his ability to entertain the enthusiastic sold-out crowd. But, I was also glad I braved the Alaska State Fair crowds for another reason. There was something new to me at the fair ... giant, hunormous pumpkins! Worthy of a word from the Urban Dictionary, and a bit reminiscent of the movie, The Blob. Wow, they were impressive! This year’s winner, with a 1,182 pound entry, was Dale Marshall of Anchorage, beating out J.D. Megchelsen of Nikiski, whose 1,289 pound pumpkin was disqualified because it was damaged. Mardie Robb from Palmer was also growing the humongous gourds. Unfortunately, her 435.5 pound pumpkin cracked this year making it ineligible for the competition. It takes a lot of dedication to grow competitive fair pumpkins. Considering that our growing season is at least a month shorter than other areas in the country, our growers are doing amazing. The current world record, set in 2012, is a 2,009 pounder grown by Ron Wallace of Rhode Island. Just imagine the size pumpkins Alaskans could grow with another month added to our growing season.

When I saw those pumpkins at the fair I thought to myself, “Why don’t we grow more pumpkins in our home gardens?” My favorite Thanksgiving treat is pumpkin pie and how much better would it be if it was made with our own home-grown organic pumpkins? We might not be able to use the same methods as states with warmer climates can, but we certainly can grow pumpkins in Alaska. 

How our pumpkins grow

First you need to pick out your seeds carefully. Decide what type of pumpkin you want to grow. There are big differences in pumpkins grown for eating and those for ornamental use. If you are not going for the prize for the largest pumpkin at the state fair then you probably don’t want to start with Atlantic Giant seeds. The Cooperative Extension Service recommends Spirit and Autumn Gold for Southcentral gardens and several other varieties for gardeners in the warmer areas of Interior Alaska. Choose a variety of pumpkin that will mature in less than 100 days. Most outdoor garden soil temperatures in Alaska are far too cold for pumpkin seeds to reliably germinate in, so start your seeds indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost. Keep your seedlings well watered and fertilize weekly. The seedlings will be very tender, so harden them off and be sure there will be no more frosty nights before planting them in a raised garden bed with rich soil in a sunny location. 

I have had success growing Jack-Be-Little pumpkins in my outdoor garden with no protection, but for the larger pumpkins, planting your seedlings through clear plastic is advised. Pumpkins appreciate warm soil. If your garden is in a windy area some wind protection will be needed. Pumpkin vines can take up a lot of space so if you don’t want to give up space in a garden consider using a large pot or plant them in repurposed tires.

Pollination

Like its cousin, the cucumber, pumpkins have male and female flowers on the same vines. You can recognize the female flowers because they will have the beginnings of the pumpkin at their base. However, if the female flower is not pollinated, the tiny green pumpkin will not develop. If there are not enough bees around to perform the necessary pollination you may have to do the process yourself. Take the anther from one or two male flowers and gently rub it on the stigma of the female flower to complete the pollination process. This does not guarantee success, but your chances of growing a sweet orange pumpkin by the end of the season will improve. If the hand pollination works, the female flower will die off in a day or two and the fruit will begin its growth. 

Pumpkins are heavy feeders so they need regular watering and fertilizing. Once two or three pumpkins are growing well on a vine remove the remaining female flowers and cut the end of the vine, so the plant’s energy can be devoted to maturing the fruits.

By the way, do you know why pumpkins are considered a fruit rather than a vegetable? In strict botanical terms, anything produced by a flower is a fruit. This means all squashes, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers are actually fruits. Even green beans are considered a fruit, botanically speaking. This really is simply a scientific distinction however, and if we prefer to call green beans and squash vegetables, that is perfectly acceptable.

Harvest

In Alaska, we can’t wait to harvest our pumpkins until after cold weather kills the vines like gardeners in the lower 48 do. Be very careful to not damage their soft skins and be sure to leave some of the stem on the fruit when picking. Leaving the stem on is not just for looks, it helps increase the longevity of your stored pumpkin. Partially ripened pumpkins can continue to ripen safely inside. After harvesting, store your pumpkins in a warm place for one week to allow them to cure. After that, keep them at 50 to 55 degrees for best storage results. If you don’t have ideal storage conditions you can process your freshly harvested pumpkins and freeze or can the puree for later use. I find ulus work great to scrape the pulp out of a quartered pie pumpkin. 

Time to Enjoy

Pumpkins aren’t just for pies and Jack-o-lanterns. Pumpkin can be used in soups, breads, cakes, cookies, puddings, pancakes, etc… Our imagination is the only limit to its versatility. Alaska Brewing Company has come out with Alaskan Pumpkin Porter this year. What pumpkin treat or treats will you be enjoying during your Thanksgiving feast? Below is a favorite recipe shared by my co-worker for the best roasted pumpkin seeds ever.

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds - by Carla Day

1 lb (about 2 cups) raw hulless pumpkin seeds

5 T Johnny’s Salad and Pasta Elegance Seasoning (or any seasoning of your choice)

Rinse seeds well and remove any black ones and other debris.

Put seeds in a large glass bowl and cover with salted boiling water. Cover the bowl and let sit overnight or 7-8 hours. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Drain the seeds well and add the seasoning. Test your seasoning by roasting a small handful first. Spread seeds in a single layer on a non-stick baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes until you see no signs of green left.

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Author

Wendy Wesser

Author & Media

Wendy Wesser

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