Grow your own jack-o-lanterns

Growing pumpkins in the urban vegetable garden

We get over 500 trick-or treaters every year. Last year, we hit a new record at 531. We figure that our neighbourhood must be the Halloweeniest place on earth.

We live in Strathcona, a tiny pocket near downtown Vancouver known for its old wooden rowhouses, wedged right in between Canada’s poorest postal code and one of its most affluent. Rumour has it that parents from other neighbourhoods import their kids into our area for Halloween. The whole neighbourhood gets busy, but somehow our house is situated on the absolute nexus of trick-or-treating mayhem. We seem to get even more than people across the street.

We get trick or-treaters with all kinds of stories. Like the 40-year-old fairy princess who insisted on us giving her candy because she had just escaped from a cult that didn’t permit her to celebrate holidays. And the kids we almost turned away because they didn’t have costumes, until the oldest sister pleaded to us, “please, we just moved here from Africa and this is our first Halloween.” We get everything from spoiled toddlers who somehow manage to wander inside our house, to the children of drug addicts who still manage to put a costume together.

There are the kids who don’t say thank you. And the kids who ask for more candy, or who just try to grab it out of our bowl. It’s crazy to look out over our street on Halloween (not to mention the local tradition of setting off fireworks on Halloween, something that seems to only happen in Vancouver) and see the swarms of people.

With so many trick-or treaters, we can’t even close our door. Or eat dinner. We just sit on our front porch and give out candy as a continuous stream of kids marches up to our door. We use a tag-team system where Jason gives out candy and I stand beside him with a clipboard and make tallies to keep track of the numbers.

Being health-conscious people, Halloween always poses a bit of a moral dilemma.  High-fructose corn syrup-filled crap seems to be the only option when it comes to the mini-sized bars we need for Halloween. Jason and I don’t feel great about giving it out, but we also could never imagine missing out on this amazingly fun ritual.

Organic chocolate producers, I implore you to start making Halloween candies. I know there might not be a huge market for it — after all, Halloween candy is for other people’s kids, so who cares.  But seriously, I do not want to have to give my money to the evil giant candy conglomerates again. At least half of our candies last year were from a French chocolatier that doesn’t use corn syrup or palm oil. They were marketed as more adult candy, but the kids seemed to really love them.

Recently, I’ve met some parents who have boycotted the whole trick-or-treating thing.  It made me think a bit about what I’d do in their situation.  Most Halloween candy truly is crap.  No one should eat it.  But Halloween is also a wonderful tradition.  I think that, on some level, being allowed to trick-or-treat (in an otherwise super-healthy household) when I was little taught me self-discipline.  It was the one time of year when I got to eat that much candy, and I learned to make it last.  It was also a very interesting opportunity to connect with neighbours, to peer inside other people’s houses, to exercise my fear response.

I almost forgot, this post is supposed to be about how you can grow your own Jack-O-Lanterns.

This year, our backyard farm patch yielded five perfect little sugar pumpkins. They aren’t the jack-o-lantern type, but they’re perfect for baking (rather than pie, I like to roast them in cubes and combine them with lentils, winter greens and goat cheese, like this). They are too thick-walled, and too precious, for us to carve, so we are going to display the whole pumpkins outside.

Right now isn’t the time to plant pumpkins, but it’s a great time to think about incorporating them into your garden design plan. Pumpkins are easy to grow, but they take up A LOT of space in your garden and suck a ton of nutrients out of the soil. They also require full sunlight.

Back in June, I had the good fortune to get a tour of the gardens at Hollyhock’s campus on Cortes Island, where pumpkins are grown in a big hugelkultur bed. This soil-building permaculture technique uses decaying wood to build biomass and deliver nutrients to plants. I haven’t built a hugelkultur bed yet, but in these dreary fall months, I plan to take some time to get outside, reconnect with the garden, and dream about the possibilities for spring.

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