When it comes to pumpkins, drought and firestorms can’t stop this pre-Halloween harvest.
Challenged by natural disasters, local farmers happily report a good crop of pumpkins. Most patches will be open by Saturday, Oct. 3, with a plentiful supply of that Halloween staple.
“The crop looks really good,” said Steve Saunders, manager of Amador Flower Farm, which grows about 5 acres of pumpkins in Plymouth. “The pumpkins are all colored up and ready to go.”
Like most crops during this fourth consecutive drought year, the pumpkins started ripening early.
“They’re about a week to 10 days early, but we planted two weeks later than normal, too,” Saunders said. “(Besides the standards), we’re growing at least 18 weird varieties, stuff you’ll never see in the grocery store.”
Home to millions of day lilies, Amador Flower Farm kicks off pumpkin season with its Fall Fun Days, a large family-oriented festival, Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 3 and 4. Its pumpkin patch, corn maze and hay-bale maze stay open through Halloween with tram rides and a petting zoo on weekends. In addition to the pumpkins, visitors will find hundreds of fall-flowering day lilies, amaryllis and sunflowers in bloom.
Most pumpkins have some natural drought tolerance, which helped these late-season squash withstand triple-digit temperatures and limited water.
“This year, we put all the pumpkins on drip (irrigation),” Saunders said. “We saved quite a lot of water, and the pumpkins look great.”
Foothill ranches and farms endured smoky days during recent wildfires, such as the 70,000-acre Butte fire that devastated parts of Amador and Calaveras counties.
“We got smoked out a few days, but it was nothing compared to the (4,240-acre) Sand fire last year,” Saunders said. “That fire came within a mile of the farm. A lot of our loyal customers lost their homes. (During the Butte fire), we had two employees evacuated, but their homes were OK.”
Corn mazes, plus “corn baths” and other corny fun, have become as big a draw as pumpkins to these patches. Now in its 26th year, Dave’s Pumpkin Patch in West Sacramento hosts its popular haunted corn maze with a plot twist; in perhaps a nod to the drought, “Decades of Darkness” tells the scary tale of a cursed land where nothing grows.
A year after Cool Patch Pumpkins upped its world-record corn maze to 63 acres, the Dixon landmark tried a distinctly Sacramento look: an all-corn version of the Kings’ logo. It stretches across 40 acres just north of Interstate 80. In addition, Cool Patch grew more than 50 varieties of pumpkins.
How do you choose a perfect pumpkin? Here are some tips from longtime pumpkin pickers:
▪ If you’re going to pick your own, bring a pair of sharp pruning shears to cut the stem. Wear sneakers or sturdy old shoes that you won’t mind getting dirty.
▪ Look for pumpkins that are fully colored. With the exception of oddball varieties, avoid orange pumpkins with green streaks; they likely won’t ripen off the vine.
▪ Size matters. Small pumpkins have the best flavor for cooking. Medium pumpkins are best for carving; huge pumpkins tend to have thick walls.
▪ Don’t get carried away by size; you’ve got to be able to lift the pumpkin yourself and carry it to your car. Most patches offer wagons for hauling; use one if necessary. Remember: Small children tend to drop pumpkins.
▪ Check pumpkins before picking. A fully ripe pumpkin has a hard shell that does not dent or scratch easily with your fingernail. (Do this scratch test on the back side of the pumpkin to avoid scarring its face before carving.) Examine the whole pumpkin for soft spots; reject any squash showing signs of such bruising. Also avoid pumpkins with holes, cracks or bad splits. The holes could be signs of insect damage; cracks and splits invite mold.
▪ Lift the pumpkin from the bottom, not the stem. It will break off.
▪ If you have a carving design in mind, bring it with you when pumpkin hunting. It will make selection easier.