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Learn about Eating Quality in Winter Squash and Pumpkin

3 Key Considerations for Selecting Pumpkins, Squashes, and Gourds for Fall Harvest

If you've grown or thought about growing pumpkins, winter squashes, and gourds, you have likely noticed the large number of varieties that are available. Johnny's offers a diverse selection of cucurbits, some strictly ornamental, some strictly edible, and many that serve both purposes — in all, more than 60 varieties. With so many to select from, you may be wondering how best to make your choice.

We can help you narrow the field to varieties that will work best for your operation. The main factors to weigh are where you will sell them, grow them, and store them. In this article, we'll review three key considerations that guide experienced growers when selecting pumpkins, squashes, and gourds for fall harvest.

Matching Size to Markets

As with most crops, your first consideration has to be your markets. Where are you going to sell them, and what are your customers likely to want?

If you sell at farmers' markets, you probably don’t want to transport huge pumpkins that will take up a lot of space in your vehicle. Nor will customers want to carry heavy pumpkins back to their cars, unless you can delegate a worker to help them.

Many growers like to take a few big pumpkins and squashes to farmers’ markets, just to brighten the market stand and catch the eye of shoppers. But the bulk of your farmers’ market sales are probably going to be small to medium size items, under 10 pounds each. You can fit a lot more small product in the space occupied by a few large items. What’s more, gourds and pie pumpkins can have as striking a visual impact when massed on a table or in a bin. Keep in mind your customers are more likely to purchase them if they can carry them easily.

On the other hand, if you operate a farm-based market, especially one that specializes in autumn activities, you probably want to display plenty of large pumpkins and squashes. Giant pumpkins like our white Polar Bear can become the centerpiece of an autumn display that people will notice as they drive by. Customers who visit the farmstand to buy ornamentals for their own home decor will likely want a large or extra-large pumpkin, too. Anything over 30 pounds ought to be picked by staff and moved to the farmstand, to prevent the possibility of back strain by a customer. For U-Pick, a range of sizes from 10 to 30 pounds can be left in the field for customers to hunt and choose on their own, though you may want to provide carts or wagons for them to haul back their finds.

Back at the farmstand, there will be ample opportunity to sell small pumpkins, squashes, and gourds. Grow a complete range of sizes and shapes to provide something for every taste.

Ornamental or Edible

Most of the big Jack-o'-Lantern pumpkins are purely ornamental; they do not develop the sugars that customers expect of an edible pumpkin. Likewise, some of the interestingly colored and shaped specialty pumpkins are best sold for decoration only. While edible gourds are increasing in popularity for ethnic cuisines, the majority of gourd varieties are strictly for ornamental use.

Many of the specialty pumpkins do have excellent eating quality, however, so they can serve a dual purpose. Your customers will appreciate the fact that they can use them for decorations, then cook them later. Varieties that are both edible and ornamental encompass a wide range of colors and shapes, such as the delightfully plump, deeply ribbed Musque de Provence and the bright orange, teardrop-shaped Red October.

Pie pumpkin varieties such as Winter Luxury and winter squash varieties such as Jester, Winter Sweet, and Sunshine are all deliciously edible. (Learn more about the factors that make good Eating Quality in Winter Squashes and Pumpkins.)

For CSA growers, most of the demand is for edible rather than ornamental products, but again, dual-purpose types lend interest and value. You might choose to grow small edibles if you have to transport the CSA shares, larger ones if people pick up on the farm. In that case, be sure to have a cart or extra hands to help them get their share to the car.

Another key difference between edibles and ornamentals is that edibles are usually sold by weight, whereas ornamentals are sold by the piece. You might be able to get a dollar or two for a small ornamental pumpkin or gourd. But an edible pumpkin or squash the same size, sold by the pound, generally will cost more.

Space Requirements

Growing space is another primary consideration for pumpkin growers. All vining crops take up a lot of land, but that is especially true for large pumpkins and squashes. As a rule of thumb, the smaller the fruit, the higher the yield. Where you might get one 65-pound Polar Bear pumpkin, you could get five 4-pound New England Pie pumpkins from the same area.

Vine length provides an indicator of how much space a particular variety will take up, which is why we include this attribute in our Pumpkin Comparison Charts. A shorter vine is more desired for growers with less land or a larger grower who wants to maximize production. Our charts can help you weigh size and yield against other considerations, too, such as disease resistance, color, and shape when calculating which varieties make the most efficient use of space.

Finally, you might also consider your storage facilities when choosing which varieties to grow. If you have ample storage facilities for edibles, and a place to sell them over an extended period of time, you can choose varieties with long storage potential. If, on the other hand, your storage space is limited, it is less important to grow long-keeping varieties; you might want to grow varieties that reach their peak flavor soon after harvest.

Following these three steps can help lend some definition to big-picture planning for fall harvest displays. By first weighing which size cucurbits best match your markets; giving consideration to the edible and ornamental qualities of your offerings; then reviewing how your choices fit your growing and storage space constraints, the process of choosing which cucurbits to grow this year for fall harvest markets becomes a much more straightforward exercise.



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