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Courtesy Allison Smith
Greenbelt, Maryland, uses locally grown jack-o’-lanterns to give seasonal flair to its forest preservation program.
They may not be Charlie Brown’s anticipated Great Pumpkin, which gives presents to good boys and girls, but the pumpkins at the Greenbelt Pumpkin Festival in Maryland do an even greater deed by involving the community in a sustainable event.
This year’s festival kicks off at noon on Oct. 19, 2013, with a free pumpkin carving event at the Greenbelt Forest Preserve using 250 pumpkins purchased and donated from local farms. That night, the carved pumpkins lit with candles will be positioned on stumps, on the ground and in trees to create a glowing trail in the forest preserve.
The trail will open at 6 p.m. for the general public to walk and learn the importance of preserving the forest.
In past years, organizer Allison Smith says their mission was to grow pumpkins from the city’s own pumpkin patch for this and future festivals.
“The Greenbelt Pumpkin Festival’s pumpkin patch was intended to provide part, if not all, of the jack-o’-lanterns for this year’s festival,” Smith says. “I needed to find a way to rely on Greenbelt for pumpkins, since the last two years have been very difficult in getting pumpkins. Some farmers took back their pledged donations when harvest came, and they realized they couldn’t afford it. Others were hiking up prices and going back on the promised wholesale price they’d quoted me in the summer.”
Beginning in November 2009, Smith worked to restore a 5-year neglected and weed-infested Greenbelt Community Garden plot.
“It took weeks of persistent work to just get it down to the level that I could create dirt mounds,” Smith explains. “I got advice about growing pumpkins from anyone who would give it.”
Smith used all compost in the garden and weeded by hand to keep the garden 100-percent organic.
Paul Downs, founder of the Pumpkin Festival, coached Smith through mound-making and ceremoniously planted the Big Max pumpkin seeds. Smith was committed to making the best pumpkins possible.
“In these gardens, there is no water source, so gardeners walk across the street and use the hose from the Greenbelt Homes, Inc. offices and carry the water in buckets back to their garden. I would do this sometimes in between other work (with nice clothes on!) if I got the chance to sneak in a watering,” Smith says. “We noticed our first little pumpkin growing, and we were thrilled! And then we noticed another one, but it was growing in between two fences and was inaccessible.”
However, a month of drought was followed by several days of rain, and the plants were taken by fungus.
“We were forced to pull off our one tiny pumpkin from its dead vine,” Smith says. “I knew that our experiment had failed, but I am still determined to do it next year, with two or three more garden plots.”
For this year’s event, Smith was able to raise money to buy farm-grown pumpkins and says she hopes it will serve as a model for other urban agricultural-related events in Greenbelt.
To start a pumpkin festival in your town, Smith offers the following tips:
- Get support from your local government. They will help with logistical elements for the festival and community garden.
- If you’re applying for a community garden plot, apply for permits to use public space on your selected dates. Apply for permits far in advance, and be open to changing dates.
- Create a budget: Decide how many people you need to serve; shop for the best price on carving tools and pumpkins; and get the best advertising prices. Set a fundraising goal.
- Ask community members to help with the garden. Involve young people by creating tasks that anyone can do, such as digging mounds and weeding. Go organic — compost and hand-weeding is best for pumpkins.
- Begin raising money by calling and emailing businesses, friends, politicians and members of your community. Use the web, including listservs, Craigslist and social networking sites like Facebook. Recruit volunteers to carry the pumpkins.
- Thank your supporters. They deserve praise for their help, and seeing their neighbors supporting your festival will encourage more people to join.
- Make your pumpkin festival visible to the community in the weeks leading up to it. Set up promotional tables at farmers markets and local plant nurseries to help market the event.
Smith would like to offer her support to people starting a pumpkin walk in their town. Visit the Greenbelt Pumpkin Walk Facebook page for more information.