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Head to the Patch to Pick the Perfect Pumpkin

It's time to head to the patch to pick the perfect pumpkin.

This year you may have a better selection.

"Georgia farmers planted almost half again as many pumpkins this year as in 1994," said Terry Kelley, a horticulturist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

"We estimate there are about 500 acres of pumpkins in the state this year, up from about 350 two years ago," Kelley said. "Figuring about 1,500 pumpkins per acre, that's 750,000 potential jack-o'-lanterns."

But even the extra acres won't meet Georgians' demand for pumpkins. Kelley said markets usually import pumpkins from the Midwest and Great Lakes area, where a bad growing season in 1995 boosted market prices.

"Whenever prices go up in any crop, farmers will plant more of it," he said.

Growers are also trying innovative marketing ideas in the pumpkin patch. They range from hay rides and petting zoos to displays of novelty vegetables, such as ornamental pumpkins, gourds and popcorn.

"It can turn into an outing," Kelley said. "Take a family trip to the pumpkin patch before Halloween. See the sights and fall leaves. Make a day of it."

You also can find pumpkins at roadside stands or farmers' markets. The price varies by size, type, color and when you buy.

If it's size you want, don't expect the Great Pumpkin to appear in any Georgia fields.

The world-record pumpkin, grown in Ontario, Canada, weighed in at 990 pounds. The Southeast's weather favors diseases that damage or destroy pumpkins before they reach mammoth size.

"Most varieties we grow get to about 25 or 30 pounds at most," Kelley said. "That's about as large as people can comfortably handle for holiday decorating or preserving."

Different varieties have different shapes, colors and flesh thickness. Some are better for jack-o'-lantern carving. Larger pumpkins have thicker walls that may be harder to carve.

Pie pumpkins are usually smaller, running four to five pounds each. "Their flesh is thicker and more dense. And they're sweeter," Kelley said.

No matter the type of pumpkin you want, Kelley suggests you select and store it carefully.

* Choose a pumpkin that's not damaged and is evenly firm. Check it all over for nicks, cuts, pits or soft spots that can lead to rotting and discoloration.

* Make sure the stem is attached. Infections can invade easily and cause rot. Many rot organisms love sugar, and pumpkins are full of it.

* Store it carefully, especially if you pick it from the vine yourself. Cure a fresh-picked pumpkin by keeping it in a dry place. Don't handle or disturb it. Curing toughens the rind, making it less prone to rot.

If the pumpkin you've picked will be your jack-o'-lantern, here are some hints:

Use a sharp, clean knife to cut open the pumpkin. Then clean out the pulp and rinse the cavity. Use a paring knife to carve the jack-o'-lantern features.

If you plan to preserve your pumpkin, decorate it with nontoxic paints, markers or stickers. The cut flesh will dry out quickly and can rot more easily, making it unfit for canning or freezing.

Don't waste the flesh.

Pumpkin is rich in vitamin A and potassium. One-half cup of cooked pumpkin provides more than the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A. And one cup of cooked pumpkin contains only 81 calories. It's low in fat and sodium, too.

As the fall holidays near, Georgia growers strive to provide perfect pumpkins. "Roadside stands and farmers' markets will probably have the best deals on pumpkins," Kelley said. "But prices almost always rise the closer to Halloween it gets."

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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