"Isn't Jack O'Lantern Irish?" jokingly asked my neighbor. Actually, she may not have been far off. Jack-o'-lanterns are of course associated with Halloween, whose roots some historians believe date back to an ancient Celtic harvest festival called Samhein (pronounced sah-win).
The original jack-o'-lanterns were carved turnips, beets and potatoes, which were placed near windows and doorways to ward off evil spirits. Immigrants from Ireland, Scotland and England brought that tradition to the United States, but they used our native pumpkin to make their jack-o'-lanterns.
Frankly, I wish they had stuck to beets. It pained me to see my wife and grandson carving up a pumpkin to make a jack-o'-lantern this past weekend. Every time I looked at that pumpkin, I had visions of pumpkin pie, pumpkin pudding, pumpkin whoopie pies, pumpkin muffins and pumpkin cheesecake. All was not lost -- my wife saved the seeds when she disemboweled the pumpkin. These were washed, dried, tossed in olive oil, and roasted to make a healthy snack.
The other baked goodies will come once we harvest our own pumpkins, still ripening in the garden. However, as I write, the forecast is for frost and possibly several hard freezes by time you read this. Mature pumpkins can withstand a light frost of 28 to 32 degrees, though the vines may be killed. Once the vines are killed, pumpkins do not ripen much further.
If exposed to several days of frosty temperatures, the fruit itself will suffer damage. Therefore, harvest frost exposed pumpkins and use them soon. If you can't gulp down all that pumpkin at one sitting, freeze them. We prepare our surplus for freezing by cutting the unpeeled pumpkins into quarters. These pieces are cooked in a pressure cooker for 10 minutes, after which the edible flesh is scooped out and placed in freezer bags.
Pumpkins exposed to temperatures below 28 may not be salvageable. Unripe -- mostly green -- pumpkins exposed to frost are best tossed on the compost pile or tossed at evil spirits on Halloween.
Maybe you can get some evil spirits to help with these gardening tasks:
n Give houseplants a dilute solution of fertilizer and then forget about any additional applications until March. In general, houseplants need less water and no fertilizer through the cold months because of slow growth. The exception to this rule is potted herbs growing in sunny windows or under lights. Since we are constantly snipping shoots for use in cooking, herb plants need to keep growing.
n Don't be too alarmed by houseplants whose leaves are dropping or turning yellow. In summer, these plants enjoyed higher humidity, brighter light and larger temperature differences between day and night than they are now getting in our thermostatically controlled homes. Yellowing and leaf drop are typical reactions as houseplants adjust to the changing environment. If yellowing and leaf drop continue beyond three or four weeks, be alarmed. Run, scream, panic! Your plants are dying.
n Lock the doors; shutter the windows! It's time for the annual house invasion. Typically with the onset of cold weather, many insects swarm and seek shelter for the winter. Multi-colored Asian Lady Beetles, Boxelder and Milkweed bugs, and Western Conifer Seed Bug are among the critters who want in. You may first see them congregating on the sunny sides of the house as they prepare to make entry through whatever cracks and openings they can find. So, seal up those openings, especially around windows, as best as you can. Otherwise, tune up the vacuum and get ready to suck up those insects that reach the inner sanctum.
n Pull up plant stakes, brush off the soil and wipe down the stakes with a 50-50 solution of hydrogen peroxide and water or a bleach solution of one part bleach in nine parts water. I try to minimize using household bleach to sterilize pots and plants stakes because of environmental concerns.