Get more from your pumpkin than a funny face

Pumpkin centerpieces such as this one are perfect for Thanksgiving.

I watched Martha Stewart do a hundred different things with pumpkins. I thought there were only two: carve them or smash them. Martha showed me just how wrong I am.

While carving has gotten infinitely more sophisticated than just punching out a couple of triangle eyes and a snaggle-tooth smile, it still remains the same. Once carved, pumpkins fill up with gray mold. Conditions for fungal growth are perfect inside a hollow pumpkin: moist, humid and warm.

At our house, we use paint or markers to decorate pumpkins and carve them days before Halloween. There are several techniques to reduce rot, such as coating the inside with glue, dipping it in bleach, or applying brand-name pumpkin preservative, but results vary. For more information on treatments and results, there is a great experiment at

The pumpkin guts are usually tossed, but roasting the seeds is an easy favorite. It’s as easy as adding olive oil and sea salt, although Martha added touches of chili powder, cayenne pepper along with lime juice to her seeds. Why does that sound so much better? Because it probably is.

If you can hold off carving a pumpkin at Halloween, small ones can make great Thanksgiving centerpieces. Hollow the inside as usual and insert a plastic container to hold water and a florist oasis (green foam) to support stems. Martha used oak leaves and roses in her arrangements, but we have so many more options in the Lowcountry such as magnolia, eucalyptus, nandina, corkscrew willow, Northern sea oats and sasanqua. If you’re not the creative type, the Trident Technical College Horticulture Club is taking orders for pumpkin centerpieces. Email me for more information.

Pumpkins can be pureed for recipes, although jack-o’-lantern pumpkins are not recommended because they are watery and flavorless. Instead, squash or sugar pie pumpkins are better for making pumpkin bread or soup.

If you’re interesting in growing your own pumpkins and squash next year, you will need a large area in full sun. Buttercup, butternut and acorn squash can be planted March 20-April 10 or Aug. 10-25. Pumpkins can be planted July 1-15. Big Max or Big Moon pumpkins will yield giant pumpkins that can weigh 50 pounds or more. Each giant pumpkin plant will require about 50 square feet.

Soil tests recommend what amendments are needed, but a 5-10-10 fertilizer at 30 pounds per 1,000 square feet can be used if a soil test is not available. The reduced nitrogen minimizes vine growth and allocates more resources to fruit growth. Additional fertilization may be needed at the time of flowering, depending on the soil.

Irrigate to keep soil evenly moist. Soil is ideally mounded for good drainage and mulched to moderate temperature and moisture. Drip irrigation is ideal to minimize leaf wetness and disease.

Squash and pumpkins are susceptible to many problems such as bacterial wilt, mildew and fruit rot. Fruit rot can be avoided by placing ripening fruit on a shingle to keep dry. Powdery mildew is tolerated by most plants, but it’s a serious disease on pumpkin; it also is more likely to affect late-planted squash.

To avoid diseases, control insects that spread it, such as cucumber beetles. Also, do not plant melons, cucurbits, squash or pumpkin in the same area for three years to avoid soil-borne disease.

Squash and pumpkins are ready to harvest when the skin cannot be punctured with your thumbnail. Cut the fruit from the vine and leave a handle for carrying. Wash with soapy water. Squash and pumpkins can be stored for two months or more after they are dipped in a chorine solution (4 teaspoons per gallon) and kept at 55 degrees.

My culinary tastes have been described as caveman. Hamburger and fries are my usual fare. After preparing Martha’s roasted butternut squash, however, I have changed my ways. Wedges, with the skins, baked with a sprinkle of chili powder and sea salt isn’t just a tolerable side dish, it’s delicious.

Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, email him at