I’m at a truck-stop plaza on I-80 in Minnesota, eyeing the myriad flavors of coffee creamers offered in tiny, single-serving plastic containers — hazelnut, salty caramel, Bailey’s, vanilla — when a California couple, headed east, stops to take a selfie, pointing in the photo at a huge bin filled with pumpkin spice-flavored creamers. “My sister back in Monterey doesn’t believe me when I tell her pumpkin spice coffee is everywhere,” the woman explains. I didn’t believe it either but trust me, it is. I’ve only just realized that there is no pumpkin flavor in this aberration; it simply means your coffee is flavored with nutmeg and cinnamon. Hey, ’tis the season.

Americans are expected to spend $8.4 billion on Halloween this year. Some of that staggering amount will go to costumes, vampire makeup, candy and day-glo skeletons, but some will also go to pumpkins, and pumpkin foods. Pumpkin foods include pumpkin vinaigrette, pumpkin spice babka, pumpkin soup crackers and pumpkin spice caramel corn. Always ahead of the curve, Whole Foods has pumpkin pie ice cream sandwiches, pumpkin spice yogurt, pumpkin chocolate truffles and pumpkin pie soda. And let’s hear it for all those microbreweries pouring out pumpkin beers.

A tiny fraction of that Halloween spending, I’m guessing, goes to the purchase of traditional orange pumpkins, known to growers as “jacks,” as in “jack-o’-lanterns,” and for other decorative types of pumpkins like the mini “Little Boos” or ghostly white Luminas; but that amount is growing every year. Pumpkins, and other members of the squash family, cucurbits all, are becoming trendy. Nearly every supermarket now offers displays of formerly exotic squashes in their produce sections: along with the pale yellow spaghettis, dark-green acorns and kabochas, huge grey Hubbards, bright red kuris and tan butternuts, you’ll find yellow-and-green-striped delicatas, orange turbans with their green-and-white-striped caps, tri-colored carnivals, cream and green dumplings, ribbed, silvery bluish-grey Jarrahdales, warty, turban-shaped Marina Di Chioggia and the classic French Cinderella pumpkin, the flattened, deep-orange Rouge vif d’Etampes. 

All this cucurbit bounty means being able to have your pumpkin and eat it too. After serving as our Halloween or Thanksgiving decorations, these pumpkins and squashes are nutritional powerhouses all, whose flesh is packed with vitamin A and carotenoids, as well as a type of carbohydrate that is anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antidiabetic and insulin-regulating. The seeds, roasted with a coating of oil and soy sauce, are a crunchy snack that is filled with heart-healthy fats. 



To my mind, there’s only one drawback to the new availability of heirloom squashes: they’re sold by the pound and are heavy, thus expensive. Obviously, the wise gardeners among us will grow their own. Any one of these fancy squashes is as easy (or difficult, depending on your hardiness zone) to grow as a pumpkin. All winter squash require long, hot summers to ripen fully and prefer a sunny, sheltered spot. They grow best in moist, fertile soil, improved with lots of rich, well-rotted organic matter, such as garden compost or manure. A farmer neighbor plants his winter squash in the area where his calf pens once stood and routinely has a bumper crop, thanks to the manure-enriched soil, but, lacking livestock, any heap of rich soil will do. It’s best to start with seedlings for the longer-season varieties, and you’ll probably have to start the seedlings of the more exotic varieties yourself, as they won’t be available in most garden centers. Sow your seeds indoors in mid-spring in small plantable pots to prevent disturbing the roots when setting them out. Harden off seedlings, and once the risk of frost has passed, plant them out, watering them in and mulching well. Cover with cloches or floating row cover if the weather is still chilly, then remove covers when blossoms arrive so the plants can be pollinated. 

Once you’ve successfully raised a gorgeous heirloom squash, the impulse is there to save seed and repeat your success. After all, those seeds are expensive. But there’s this little problem with cross-pollination: Because winter and summer squash and pumpkins are closely related, they may cross among themselves. Seed companies know all about this and isolate vine crops for good reason: If two crops’ blossoms mix in a given year, it will show up in the seed you buy for next year. This year’s butternut will look like a butternut, but its progeny next year? Possibly not so much. Varieties in the same species must be separated by a distance of at least 100 feet to prevent honeybees from cross-pollinating flowers — and even then you may get crosses in next year’s crop that will amaze and confound you. To prevent cross-pollination in a small garden, you really can’t plant more than one variety from the same species. If you grow two or more varieties in the same species and want to save seed, the flowers of each variety must be hand-pollinated to prevent cross-pollination. It’s not impossible to go this route, but it’s a bit of work and will make buying seed seem a lot less expensive.

I have a unique opportunity to test saving cucurbit seed this year. I had a buttercup squash plant appear in my kitchen garden, well away from the vegetable garden, probably a volunteer from last year’s seeds that laced the compost pile. Despite its late start, the plant produced four full-sized, delicious squash whose seeds probably weren’t subject to cross-pollination, so I’ll save some and give them a try next year. That’s the beauty of gardening, captured in a pumpkin seed: there’s always something to look forward to next year.