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The trick-or-treaters are gone and the costumes and decorations will soon be packed away, but what about the pumpkins? What will become of your porch decorations now that Halloween is in the rear-view mirror and we're busy getting ready for Thanksgiving and Christmas?
Millions of pumpkins collectively weighing more than 1.3 billion pounds get sent to landfills each year, The Atlantic reports. There, they'll decompose, releasing methane — a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide — into the atmosphere. Your jack-o-lanterns don't have to contribute to this problem, though. Rather than send your jack-o-lanterns out with the weekly trash, consider some of these more eco-friendly options.
One good option is to compost your pumpkins. Composting helps keep waste out of our landfills and also reduces greenhouse gas emissions. And pumpkins are about 90 percent water, so they break down quickly, said Kate Caldwell, an interpretive naturalist at Plum Creek Nature Center.
Sending pumpkins or similar waste to landfills "is a lose-lose situation," Caldwell said. It's adding more waste to our already full landfills. Then, as the waste breaks down, it creates leachate, which is liquid that percolates through the decomposing waste at a landfill. Leachate can eventually make its way into the groundwater and nearby waterways, so landfills have to spend money to catch or prevent the leachate.
You don't even have to have a compost pile already established at home to compost your jack-o-lanterns. You can simply break it up into smaller pieces and cover it with some fallen leaves and forget about it, Caldwell said. Nature will do the rest. Just make sure to remove the seeds from your pumpkins before composting them or you may have a pumpkin patch come spring.
One note of caution: Only leave your pumpkin on your own property or somewhere you have permission to leave it. And don't dump them in the forest preserves. Throwing any kind of food refuse into a preserve is a violation of the Forest Preserve District’s General Use Ordinance No. 124.
The end goal with educating people about compost is that they learn what it means to be zero waste, and that's exactly what composting pumpkins is.
"That's the number one goal — keeping things out of landfills," Caldwell said.
If you don't want to compost your pumpkins at home, we'll be happy to take them off your hands with our "Stop, Drop and Roll Pumpkin Composting" program. Just bring your pumpkins to Plum Creek Nature Center any Saturday or Sunday in November to have a little fun with your jack-o-lantern before it makes its way to our compost. The nature center hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays.
Piece Out the Pumpkins
Have you ever checked the pumpkins on your porch only to find an animal has been nibbling on them? Squirrels are a common culprit, because they will eat through the pumpkin to get to the delicious seeds.
Squirrels aren't alone in their love of pumpkins, though. Many animals will nibble on these giant squash, the National Wildlife Federation reports. If you have a lot of wildlife in your yard, like deer, squirrels and other small mammals, chances are they will nibble on your pumpkin, especially as the weather gets colder and other food sources are more scare. Just break it up into smaller pieces and leave them out in the yard for a delicious and much appreciated snack for the neighboring animals.
Turn Seeds Into Feed
Pumpkin seeds are a delicious treat for many animals, including squirrels, chipmunks and some birds, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Even if you're going to compost your pumpkins, scoop the seeds out first and save them for the wildlife.
If you're going to roast or dry the seeds for yourself, a little salt or seasoning is fine, but do not add anything to seeds you are putting out for animals, the National Wildlife Federation advises. Instead, just put the raw seeds out in a small dish or bowl and the wildlife will find them.
You can also add raw pumpkin seeds in with your bird seed for your backyard birds. If you prefer, you can also dry or roast them before putting them in a feeder, according to The Spruce. The variety of birds that eat pumpkin seeds can vary depending on what other food sources are available, but birds that eat the seeds include blue jays, cardinals, dark-eyed juncos, rose-breasted grosbeaks and some nuthatches, sparrows, chickadees and finches.
Make Your Own Pumpkin Patch
This year's trash can be next year's treasure if you save some of your pumpkin seeds to plant your very own pumpkin patch. Seeds from this year's pumpkins can't be planted for next year's harvest until spring, so you'll first have to dry the seeds.
To do this, scoop the pumpkin seeds from the pumpkin and place them in a colander. Run them under cold water, making sure to separate the pulp from the seeds. Once clean, lay the seeds on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper, making sure the seeds aren't touching. Place the sheet in a cool, dry place. After a few days, flip the seeds over. Let them continue drying for three to four weeks, The Spruce advises. Make sure to throw away any that show signs of mold.
Once the seeds are dry, store them in an envelope or brown paper bag until spring. The seeds shouldn't be planted until the threat of frost has passed. The best time to plant pumpkin seeds for use at Halloween is late May, according to the University of Illinois Extension. Pumpkins planted too early will rot before the holiday.
Pumpkins need a lot of room to grow and require full sun. Exact planting specifications vary depending on the variety. In general, they should be planted about 1 inch deep into hills or mounds of dirt. You can plant three to five seeds in each hill, and then thin out to the best one of two plants once they are established.
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