Recycle Your Halloween Pumpkin

Wait!  Before tossing out your Jack-O-Lantern to carve room for Christmas, consider giving it a second life. Pumpkins, one of the oldest known crops in the western hemisphere, have been cultivated for thousands of years. Today, the US alone produces nearly 2 billion pounds of pumpkins a year. Unfortunately, most end up in a landfill after the holidays. Now that’s scary! Especially when there are multiple ways to make wonderful use of our beloved Cucurbita. 

Here are a few of our favorites…

Eat It 

Pumpkins are a fruit and, like all fruit, packed with nutrients. If your uncarved pumpkin is still firm and ripe, consider eating it. One half cup of pumpkin provides all the vitamin A required in a day and one cup has more potassium than a banana. It’s also a fantastic source of fiber.   

Puree it 

Skip the can and puree your own pumpkin. Then try one of these amazing recipes from the Food Network. 

Roast the seeds   

Pumpkin seeds are especially delicious roasted, not to mention nutritious and FUN to eat. After washing and drying, toss in olive oil, add some salt and your favorite seasoning, spread on a baking sheet, and bake at 300°F for 30–40 minutes (or until brown and crunchy).  Check out some more easy recipes here.

Donate it 

We’re not the only ones who love pumpkin. Some municipal zoos collect uncarved pumpkins for elephants and other animals. Check with the Houston Zoo to see if they’re accepting donations. Pig farms often accept both carved and uncarved pumpkins, like this farm in Liberty County. 

Get Crafty 

Before your pumpkin transforms into a slimy monster, consider one of these great DIY projects.   

Decorate for Thanksgiving  

Uncarved pumpkins have a surprising shelf life. They should keep until Thanksgiving on a shady porch.

Feed some butterflies 

Share pumpkin with butterflies by placing pieces on a shallow dish.  Learn how to make a feeder for fruit-loving butterflies here.  

Make a bird feeder   

Learn how by watching this quick video from the National Audubon Society.

Compost it 

When sent to the landfill pumpkins add to the 30.3 million tons of annual food waste in the US.  Food waste produces methane gas, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. Compost your pumpkin instead to capture its nutrients and enrich your potted plants or raised garden beds.  

If you have a backyard compost bin, cut the pumpkin into small pieces and add to the bin with other green material.  If you don’t have a bin, simply shovel out a shallow depression in the ground, lay the pumpkin pieces in and cover with leaves. Nature will do the rest of the work and in a few weeks you’ll have compost that can either be left in place or scooped out and applied to your garden or lawn.   

Learn all about backyard composting on Saturday, November 6, 2021, by attending The Woodlands Township’s free backyard composting class at 8203 Millennium Forest Dr., from 10 am to 11:00 am. High quality C.E. Shepherd compost bins will be for sale for $50 each.

The great pumpkin

It’s an iconic symbol of the season. Porches, lamp posts, benches and steps are decorated with pumpkins—they are so ubiquitous that today 80% of the pumpkins grown in the U.S. are available in the month of October alone.

jack-o-lantern-3735387

The jack-o-lantern

For Halloween, these orange orbs are often carved with ghoulish faces illuminated with candles to the delight of children and adults alike. Originally known as jack-o-lanterns, we have the Irish to thank for this tradition that has folded into the fabric of our holiday. But the original jack-o-lantern wasn’t carved of pumpkin—pumpkins didn’t exist in Ireland. Ancient Celtic cultures in Ireland carved turnips. On All Hallow’s Eve, the Irish placed an ember in them to ward off evil spirits. The lore behind this tradition is the Irishman, Stingy Jack, who bargained with the devil and was doomed to roam the Earth with only a hollowed turnip to light his way.

There are other ways to use pumpkins as festive decoration. Use them as planters and set your Thanksgiving table apart.

History of the pumpkin in the Americas

There is more to the history of pumpkins to appreciate. One of the oldest known food crops in the western hemisphere, pumpkins are native to parts of the southwestern U.S., Mexico, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Pumpkins are known to have been cultivated since about 3500 BCE. Some archaeological evidence shows that ancient Aztecs used pumpkin seeds as a quick energy snack. Native Americans roasted long strips of pumpkins over a fire and also dried pumpkin, weaving the strips into mats. Throughout South and Central America pumpkin pulp has long been used as a treatment for burns.

When European colonists arrived in the New World, they relied heavily on pumpkin as a food source. Colonists prepared pumpkin by cutting off the top of the fruit, removing the seeds and pulp and replacing them with a mixture of milk, spices and honey. This food was the origin of the pumpkin pie enjoyed today.

flower-954484

Growing pumpkins

Cultivating pumpkins in the southeast Texas home garden is possible, although challenging. Pumpkins are heat-loving plants with seed germination dependent upon warm soil. In Montgomery County, late March to early April is the optimum planting time. Pumpkins require a day time temperature of 85-95 degrees with a night time temperature range of 60-70 degrees.

When preparing the garden for pumpkin growing, apply a generous amount of high quality compost to provide the nutrition requirements of these heavy feeders. Select a location with well-drained soil and few weeds, and select a pumpkin variety that’s small or dwarf since the large-fruited varieties require a space at least 18 feet in width and length for the vigorous vines. Smaller pumpkin varieties can be successfully grown in a space with plants two feet apart and rows 6 feet apart. If space is limited, you can even grow them in a pot.

Since pumpkin is a member of the cucurbit family, it’s susceptible to the same pests and diseases which plague squash, cucumbers and other cucurbits. Insect pests include:  squash bugs, squash vine borer, cucumber beetles and aphids. Plant diseases include powdery mildew, leaf spot, black rot, gummy stem blight, mosaic virus and bacterial wilt. Our local, frequently damp climate provides perfect conditions for these diseases. Removing plant debris and careful tool cleaning and sanitation will help prevent disease. For high quality fruit with a long life, harvesting at maturity is crucial. A pumpkin is mature when the entire shell has developed uniform hardness.

pumpkin-soup-3705294

Cooking with pumpkins

A versatile fruit for culinary endeavors, pumpkin lends itself to preparations ranging from soups to pies and breads. No wonder the pumpkin has found its way onto the Thanksgiving table. For inspiration in the kitchen, see these pumpkin recipes  from Fine Cooking.

Nutritionally, pumpkin is a powerful food which is low in calories and fat but high in fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin B, potassium, protein and iron. One cup of cooked pumpkin contains only 49 calories. Since every part of the pumpkin is edible, experiment with preparing not only the pulp but also the seeds, flowers, leaves and stems. Check out these guidelines for processing pumpkins.