As we move into my favorite season, with the first hint of cooler temperatures and no humidity, there’s a faint whiff of woodsmoke in the evening air and the beautiful tapestry of autumn colors displayed on the mountains.

Out in the vegetable industry growers are making the final push toward the end of the growing season in the northern latitudes that will certainly end with the arrival of the first hard frost; their counterparts in the southern latitudes are gearing up their production. But we now have winter farmers markets popping up around the country. By utilizing high tunnels for season extension, growers can produce fresh cool season vegetables (depending on their location) throughout the winter months.

As I have said in previous columns, growers need to take some time off to renew/refresh themselves and to attend some educational winter meetings to see what’s new in the industry and to visit with fellow growers and compare notes on the past season.

Autumn usually means that a fresh flush of cool season vegetables become available in the markets (and second crops of warm season vegetables – fresh tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, beans, etc., until the first frost kills them in the field). It’s when the displays at roadside markets become artistic masterpieces to attract the attention of the consumer with all sorts of pumpkins, gourds, squashes, a wide variety of ornamental corn and cornstalks.

Corn mazes and wagon rides to the field to pick your own pumpkin are active. Value-added painted pumpkins are for sale, increasing the return to the grower.

Growers also have a host of cool season crops – broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage (Savoy, green and red) and root crops such as beets, carrots, parsnips and potatoes of varying colors.

I always looked forward to the arrival of autumn as it meant a winding down as “Old Man Winter” loomed ahead. Activities begin to move indoors, with work on machinery we didn’t have time to repair during the heat of summer or just some routine maintenance. It also means planting the fields with cover crops and preparing them for a long winter’s nap.

Pumpkins, ornamental gourds, ornamental corn and apples are the crops I most associate with fall. Pumpkins have come a long way from the limited varieties we had when I was growing up. The breeders have certainly created a wide variety, from the standard dark orange, ribbed pumpkins with a strong handle to the warty and ugly pumpkins to bright white-colored specimens.

At Penn State, we conducted a large pumpkin trial at several locations several years ago; most were very acceptable. I’ve enjoyed evaluating both pumpkin varieties and developing planting systems for pumpkins throughout my career, and I thought that the early white-colored pumpkin sold by Agway could have a real home in the fall marketplace if the productivity and strength of the handle could be improved. I talked to my friend and excellent plant breeder Dr. Brent Loy from the University of New Hampshire to see if he could work on breeding a better white pumpkin for the marketplace, which he did.

Dr. Elsa Sanchez from Penn State’s Plant Science Department with a load of different varieties of pumpkins. Photo by Bill Lamont

Maybe a little lesson on this group of distinctly autumn vegetables is in order so you can have an intelligent conversation around the dinner table. Pumpkins, squashes and gourds are all closely related. Cucurbita is a genus of herbaceous fruits in the gourd family, Cucurbitaceae, native to the Andes and Mesoamerica. Five edible species are grown and consumed for their flesh and seeds. They are variously known as squash, pumpkin or gourd, depending on species, variety and local language.

Within that family you will find several species or subgroups: C. pepo, C. maxima and C. moschata. The pepo species is usually the one that we recognize as the true pumpkin. Varieties within the pumpkin group usually have bright orange skin with hard, woody and distinctly furrowed stems, which is key. You will find in this group gourds, vegetable marrow, Pattypan summer squash, scallop summer squash, gray and black zucchini and summer crookneck squash.

The maxima species contains varieties that produce pumpkin-like fruit, but the skin is usually more yellow than orange, and the stems are very different in that they are soft and spongy or corky, without ridges and without an enlargement next to the fruit. Atlantic Giant, Big Max and Show King are routinely listed as pumpkins but are more properly called squash-type pumpkins. These are the varieties folks grow to win the prize at the state fair for the largest pumpkin (sometimes exceeding 1,000 pounds).

Other members of the C. maxima group are Hubbard squash, banana squash, buttercup squash and turban squash – most autumn and winter squash.

Bringing up the rear of the procession is the moschata species. Varieties in this group are usually long and oblong instead of round, and have tan, rather than orange, skin. The stems are also deeply ridged. In this group you will find one that is used for much of the canned pumpkin sold in this country. Found in this group are cushaw, winter crookneck squash and butternut squash.

Neck, sometimes called “crookneck pumpkin,” is a relative of butternut types. It is prized for its sweet tasting, very smooth, stringless, bright orange flesh. It is late maturing and is also a full vining type. It curls when growing and can get 24 to 30 inches long. Dr. Mike Orzolek, my longtime friend and vegetable colleague at Penn State, grew some and they were very large and excellent.

That is brings me to a final thought – that many of our farmers markets and roadside markets have bakeries associated with them and pumpkin pies and other goodies certainly abound this time of year. There is nothing better than a slice of homemade pumpkin pie after a good meal of venison tenderloin with plenty of fresh fall vegetables and mashed potatoes. Life doesn’t get better than that.

Now, as you look around at all the autumn decorations and varieties of pumpkins and squash, you will be able to tell the difference and enlighten your friends and neighbors.

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