Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Weird, Wacky & Warty

Pumpkins don't just come in plain orange any more

They’re weird. They're wacky. They’re warty. And they’re all the rage for Halloween.

Unusual pumpkins in a variety of colors and shapes can create a collection worthy of the most ghoulish ghosts and goblins. With names like Red Warty Thing, One Too Many, Peanut and Full Moon, there’s sure to be one that fits your fear factor.

That’s especially true in Illinois, the nation’s largest pumpkin-producing state. It grew more than 40 percent of last year’s crop, twice that of its nearest competitor.

This year was especially difficult for pumpkins in many states because of drought conditions and Hurricane Irene. For a while, it was even touch and go locally.

“Every time we planted, we got two to three inches of rain,” said Kevin Heap of Heap’s Giant Pumpkin Farm in Minooka. The third planting finally took, he said. Then came this summer’s extreme heat, which put the plants under a lot of stress.

Heap said many of his giant pumpkin varieties, which can reach 500 pounds, didn’t get quite as big as they usually do as a result.

“The rains in August and early September really helped a lot of things,” said Heap, who grows about 30 acres of pumpkins annually. “I got a lot better crop than I had expected.”

George White of Country Bumpkin in Mundelein had a similar experience.

“It was really a roller coaster ride,” he said. “The pumpkins did ripen a bit early but the night temperatures have been mild so there haven’t been any problems locally,” he added.

More and more unusual pumpkins are being grown every year. Most people use them whole, without carving, as a way to add color and texture to their traditional Jack-o’-lanterns. If you do want to carve one of the wartier pumpkins, though, be careful. Their skin is tougher than you might think.

“It’s tough but do-able,” White said.

When asked if they had a favorite pumpkin, both men were diplomatic. “I really don’t have a favorite,” Heap said, although he does have a bit of a soft spot for Knuckleheads. “They’re all special to me,” White noted.

For the record, all of the unusual pumpkins are edible, although some are better than others.

If you’re perplexed about these peculiar pumpkins, don’t panic. Below is a primer to help you pick out the perfect pumpkins for your porch this Halloween. Enjoy!

This reddish orange French heirloom
pumpkin is also known as Rouge Vi
 D'Etampes. Thought to be the inspiration
for the coach in the popular fairy tale.

Full Moon
New. The biggest white pumpkin. Especially
striking with black stenciling on it.

Green Warty Thing
A variation of Italy's Marina di Chioggia.
 Blue-gray and very warty. Soon to be
 a classic.

The warts on this pumpkin change color
after the skin, often resulting in green
warts. Particularly scary. 

One Too Many
Looks like a bloodshot eyeball. Orange
stripes and speckles on a cream background.

Pinkish-salmon with tan peanut-like warts.
It's a French heirloom named Galeux
d'Eysines. And yes, it's real.

Queen Anne's Lace
This blue-gray pumpkin is a more elegant
 version of Australia's Jarrahdale. Its bottom
 is sloped, like an upside down pyramid.

Red Warty Thing
Exceptionally bumpy. This new red-orange
variety is a cross between a Red Hubbard
squash and an unknown pumpkin.

Speckled Hound
Orange with blue-green splotches. This is
technically a winter squash but passes
 for a pumpkin.
By Karen Geisler

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Tough Nut to Crack

American Black Walnut
The American black walnut tree

For anyone with black walnut trees, fall can be summed up in three words – duck and cover.

Sit or stand below one of these trees and you can be bombarded. Sometimes by nuts randomly dropping off the tree, but more often by the squirrels. They nibble at the hulls surrounding the walnuts and then drop them as they skitter away, chattering all the while.

Actually, I think they save up their “leftovers” during the day to use when hapless victims pass underneath. At least it seemed that way when I had two black walnuts in my back yard and a third one that stretched over the fence from one of my neighbors.

Black walnuts
Black walnuts on the ground
We hadn’t realized that the mature trees in the back yard were black walnuts when we bought the property and built a deck. It took only one party before we threw in the towel on fall entertaining.

The back yard had been quiet all afternoon.When the guests arrived, though, the walnuts rained down on the only person wearing a very white shirt. As anyone who’s been hit by a walnut hull knows, the resulting brown stains don’t come out. Ever.

These black walnuts were majestic trees that must have been about 100 years old. They were late to leaf out in the spring, allowing plenty of time for bulbs to bloom and recharge. They provided great shade in the afternoon which helped keep the house cool.

I also felt somewhat of an obligation to keep them since they were among the last walnuts in theWalnut Grove Rearrangement. There were times when I thought about it, though, given all the problems growing plants under their canopy.

The American black walnut (juglans nigra) emits a chemical with a distinctive smell called juglone. It instantly kills roses and tomatoes. It's also toxic to horses and possibly dogs.

Not all plants die. Many just didn’t thrive. I found several lists of juglone-tolerant plants but ended up more confused than ever. Each list was different.

One list said peonies wouldn’t work but I had a lot of peonies at the base of my tallest walnut tree. In fact, they had grown under a chain link fence from my neighbor’s property. The old-fashioned version of Jacob’s ladder (polemonium) did well, as most lists suggested. A cultivar with variegated leaves died after a month.

My planting style became one of trial and error. I’d buy one plant. If it survived, I bought two more. I learned that wild flowers, leopard’s bane, spiderwort, hostas, astilbes and toad lilies were my friends. In fact, the older the variety and more vigorous it was, the better the plant seemed to do.

Black walnut tree leaves
Black walnut leaves
At times, it was hard to determine whether juglone or shade was the reason why a plant didn’t do well.

Don’t count on using your walnut crop as food unless you’re willing to do some major work. The hulls are so caustic that you need solvent-proof gloves to handle them. The shells are hard to crack. It's a lot easier to just buy walnuts at the grocery store.

Whatever you do, don’t call a tree service and ask them to cut down a walnut tree for free. Although walnut is an expensive wood, they will only laugh. They generally need an entire grove to make it worth their while and most urban trees aren't suitable.

Walnuts don’t reliably produce a crop until they are 30 to 50 years old, making them very big and very expensive to take down at that point. Also, some years the walnut crop is very light. We tried, but during the 15 years we lived there, we never were able to determine why some crops were heavier than others.

Even if you cut the tree down, juglone remains in the soil for a long, long time. One of my neighbors, a major rose fancier, unfortunately found this out after moving in and cutting down her walnut tree. All of her roses instantly bit the dust. Their replacements a few years later also died.

In my book, it’s definitely better to learn to live with walnuts. Focus on the other three seasons. Try wildflowers. Whatever you do, don’t give up. Black walnuts can be a tough nut to crack but you can still have a beautiful yard.
By Karen Geisler

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Colors of Fall

Fall container kale pumpkin

Fall is here at last! I love the reds, golds, oranges and purples this time of year. Every autumn I vow to put more color in my garden. I’m not there yet, but I’ll keep trying.

There are lots of options beside the burning bushes (euonymus alatus) that so many people have. I especially love smoke bush (cotinus coggygria), oak leaf hydrangeas and some of the viburnums. Of course, you have to have some sedums and mums as well, just to liven things up.

Here are some photos I hope will inspire you. Enjoy!

Golden Spirit smokebush fall color
Golden Spirit smokebush

Alice oakleaf hydrangea fall color
Alice oak leaf hydrangea

Prairie Flame sumac fall color
Prairie Flame shining sumac
Limelight hydrangea flower in fall
Limelight hydrangea

Bloodgood Japanese maple
Bloodgood Japanese maple
Autumn Blaze maple
Autumn Blaze maple
By Karen Geisler