When you open that can of pumpkin pie filling or carve into a pumpkin to grace your front doorstep for Halloween, know that it likely came from Illinois. Afterall, Illinois is famous for being the top pumpkin-growing state in the country. After Halloween festivities are over, what happens to the millions of jack-o’-lanterns that need disposed of?
While many toss these festive, yet mushy, winter squash into the trash, this adds an immense amount of organic material into the landfill. In a landfill, trash is buried and pumpkins rot in an environment devoid of oxygen, which creates the potent greenhouse gas methane.
Yet, pumpkins are nothing more than overgrown vegetables. Something must want to eat these things. Right? The social spheres are buzzing with alternative uses for jack-o’-lanterns past their prime, but is it good advice? Not always.
Can I just dump my pumpkin in the woods?
This is considered littering and is illegal. It is all too common for natural areas to become dumping spots for yard waste, including pumpkins. The thought is these items will eventually compost, but this is not true composting.
Pumpkins smother native plants and create odd little microhabitats that are not healthy and full of mold. Pumpkins can now be found growing in nature preserves from last year’s pumpkin dump. The material not only smothers plants but also is left for someone else to clean up.
Can I feed my rotting pumpkin to wildlife?
Some animals will eat pumpkins. Like humans, the critters will go for the fresh pumpkin and leave the rotten pumpkin. Feeding wild animals can create problems. Leaving pumpkins in ditches can draw animals close to vehicles. Plus, many municipalities are actively trying to manage out-of-control wildlife populations, such as white-tailed deer. While I am a supporter of wildlife, laying out a buffet can have consequences.
Can I give pumpkins to a livestock farmer?
When it comes to domesticated livestock, hogs and poultry seem to be the most reliable consumers. Poultry will need the pumpkins smashed open or cut into chunks. Hogs have the strength to break open the pumpkins themselves. Since pumpkins are not a routine part of their diet, this can cause digestive upset. All that said, there are serious food safety concerns when animal feed is sourced from outside the farm. Many farmers will not feed their livestock scraps unless they are sourced from the farm or a reputable supplier.
Can I compost my pumpkins?
Yes! Pumpkins can be incorporated into a designated compost pile. A blemish-free, uncarved pumpkin could last for weeks before it begins to break down. Chopping up the pumpkins helps to speed up decomposition. The benefit to jack-o’-lanterns is they start breaking down as soon as we carve spooky designs into their flesh. Mix and turn the compost pile to incorporate more air into the interior to improve the composting process. The compost from this year’s pumpkins can be used on next year’s crop.
Let us compost them for you!
Some communities are organizing “pumpkin smash” events where residents can bring their pumpkins to get catapulted into a dumpster and then transported to a composting facility. On Nov. 4, 2023, University of Illinois Extension is partnering with SCARCE to have pumpkin-smash events in McDonough, McLean, Kane, Lake and Cook Counties. For more information, go to scarce.org/pumpkins.
Whatever option you choose, remember to avoid tossing fall decor in natural areas, don’t feed animals rotted pumpkins and have a happy Halloween.