• The Low Down

Great pumpkins

Precocious, blanket-toting Linus from the Peanuts comics awaited the Great Pumpkin each Halloween night from 1950 to 1999. If anyone else had been stood-up that many times by the same character, they’d have thrown in the blanket for sure.


Perhaps Linus’ resolute faith that the mythical pumpkin would show was because every year brings the world a greater pumpkin. In fact, they’ve gotten so big that people have fashioned them into boats.


Being the scholarly lad he was, Linus probably looked north on Halloween because he knew great pumpkins come from Canada. In 1979, Nova Scotia farmer and plant breeder Howard Dill patented “Dill’s Atlantic Giant,” a pumpkin variety whose genetics form the basis for today’s record-breakers. Although Mr. Dill was often referred to as the pumpkin king, I doubt he’s related to the Great Pumpkin. These days, giant pumpkin enthusiasts (that’s regular-size people and colossal produce) compete in dozens of countries thanks to Dill.


On Oct. 2, 2021, a Cape Breton grower brought things back to where they all began with his 1,956-pound leviathan he dubbed “Howard’s Ghost” in honour of the pumpkin king. Howard (the pumpkin) set a Maritime record and came within three pounds of being a national champion. The Canadian national record is still held by a Kitchener area couple who, in 2018, grew a 1,959- pound darling — a dream come true for Linus.


You can bet the seeds from such record-holders command a high price. Beyond good genes, it takes a lot of daily attention to grow a contender. Growers put in untold hours of labour, which intensifies later in the season as the developing “babies” need ever-increasing amounts of water.


Pumpkins are a type of winter squash, one of many varieties first selected for and cultivated by First Nations. Hubbard and butternut squash, along with pumpkins, have been raised by Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) ‘farmers’ since long before European contact and right into modern times. Even the word “squash” is of Algonquin origin.

Successful storage begins in the garden. Bring pumpkins and squash in before a hard frost, supporting them from underneath. Stems aren’t handles — if they break, rot begins early. Ideally, pumpkins and squash should be kept around 15 C (never below 10) at 60 per cent humidity. Store them away from apples, which creates ethylene gas that hastens ripening.


Under good conditions, acorn squash can last five to eight weeks. Pie pumpkins and buttercup squash often keep for three-to-four months, while Hubbards and butternuts sometimes go six months. Given that giant pumpkins have Hubbard genetics, I’d expect they could last a good while. But who’s going to build a storage room around a 900 kilogram pumpkin?


It would seem this agricultural super-sizing may have been predicted more than 50 years ago by little Linus. Maybe I should revisit those old comics to read what else the child philosopher had to say.


A resident of Val-des-Monts, Paul Hetzler is a former Cornell Extension Educator and a longtime Peanuts fan.