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Miniature Pumpkin Big Item in Seed Catalogues : Jack-o'-Lantern Fanciers Urged to Think Small

October 31, 1987|TEDDY COLBERT | Colbert is an avid gardener living in Brentwood and a frequent contributor to The Times.

Usually, big pumpkins get the spotlight, but this Halloween, little pumpkins are the big news.

Pumpkins averaging four ounces are everywhere, even vaulting the vegetable barrier into florist shops, and not just a few gardeners wonder if they can grow them.

Sure enough, seed catalogues now offer home gardeners seed of these charming little jack-o'-lanterns, though you will have to wait until spring to plant them. With the new seed catalogues due to arrive in mail boxes any week now, it is certainly not too early to order, and probably a good idea, while pumpkins are fresh in the mind.

In Southern California, seeds for miniature Halloween pumpkins must be planted before July 1. About 90 to 95 frost-free growing days are required, according to Hastings.

Ripening on the Vine

The warm season culture and curing of miniature pumpkins is the same as that of their Goliath relatives. Mature pumpkins of all sizes keep longer if they remain in the sun on the vine until the leaves and main stem turn a light brown. Storage is best in a dry, cool area with stems intact; last year some of ours lasted until February.

Miniature pumpkins grow on big vines and may present a possible dilemma for the space-conscious gardener. One solution is to plant seed on the edge of a south-facing untrafficked area and allow the vines to sprawl in the direction of the sun. Slopes, narrow planting strips along buildings and edges of parking areas often present possibilities when viewed with new eyes.

Expert vegetable gardener Carl Buck of Brentwood has another suggestion.

At the north end of his 12 raised vegetable beds, Buck trains his Cucurbits to climb. Squash vines--in the same botanical family and with similar growth pattern as pumpkins--are trained to grow up on braced netting by tucking the still pliable growth tips through the net's openings. The weaving requires vigilance but trellising with soft ties and gentle handling can also support the more rigid pumpkin vines.

Is the miniature pumpkin really a pumpkin? Experts vary and some imply: "Who cares?"

They are sometimes categorized as hard squash ; some say gourd, though most of the seed catalogues regard them as pumpkin . The species Cucurbit pepo embraces them all and the active genus cross pollinates freely.

A Genetic Gamble

If miniature pumpkins are planted near squash and other pumpkins, the flavor, by a principle called metaxenia, will not be affected. However, unless a Mendelian genetic gamble of size, shape, color, texture and flavor is preferred, don't bother to save the seed. The results are surprising.

There is another surprise, this one due to most of last year's miniature pumpkin fans. According to Frieda Kaplan, president of Frieda's Finest Produce Specialities, most of the little pumpkins sold were used for table decorations with the purchasers unaware that the fresh mature little pumpkins are sweet, some skin-tender, simple to cook and marvelous to eat.

With the magic of microwave, even children can cook their own in three minutes, scoop away the seeds and enjoy a quick and naturally sweet hot snack on a cool fall day. Older miniature pumpkins lose some of their sweetness and become more fibrous but are sometimes preferred by those favoring a more nutlike squash flavor.

Conventional recipes for small hard squashes adapt easily to miniature pumpkins. One receiving kudos was for a custard baked in the deseeded shells.

And, of course, they can be used as miniature jack-o'-lanterns, though they are a little tricky to carve because they are quite thick, but children older than 8 seem to manage.

Le Jardin du Gourmet lists these miniature pumpkins as Mini Pumpkin and will send 12 seeds plus two different miniature corn seed sample packets for $1 from Box 99, West Danville, Vt. 05873.

Stokes sells as Sweetie Pie and they include excellent cultural information on their seed packet and in their free catalogue. One packet costs $1.30 plus $1 handling charges from them at Box 548, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.

H. G. Hastings Co. offers their miniature pumpkin as "Jack-Be-Little" for $1.25, and their mailing charge is $1.25.

For the Small Fry

Children will also enjoy their Kinder-Garden, a packaged vegetable and flower garden containing instructions, stakes, 13 seed packages and a mapped planting chart on a pre-punched black plastic mulch. The cost is $12.25 plus handling and can be ordered from them at 434 Marietta St., Atlanta, Ga. 30302-4274. Information: (800) 334-1771.

If pumpkin popularity continues to swing on the pendulum away from the big ones and over to the miniatures, competition-minded vegetable gardeners might find themselves in a new pursuit, this time, for the world's most petite pumpkin.

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