It is hard to pass the spectacular harvest-season display of pumpkins for sale at Holleran Farms. Just east of Greenbrier Estates, at 3660 Winchester Road, you'll find wagonloads of all colors, sizes and shapes, from small ornamental daisy gourds to classic round orange jack-o-lantern types.
There are a few rarities, including the hefty French Citrouille de Touraine (Tours for short), in deep forest green embellished with inch-wide vertical yellow stripes.
Billy Holleran planted about 10 acres of seeds this year, and he expects to bring in more than 5,000 pumpkins.
"I've been growing pumpkins for about 10 years, and for the last three or four, the heirloom varieties have become very popular," said Holleran, who is a son-in-law of Herald-Leader food writer Sharon Thompson.
"A new trend is stacking the flatter types into multi-colored columns, larger on the bottom to smaller on the top."
Varieties that resemble cheese wheels, including the beige Long Island Cheese, and the hot red-orange Cinderella or Rouge Vif d'Etampes, work well for stacking. The diversity of pumpkins makes it easy to experiment and let your creativity fly. Befriend Holleran Farms at Facebook.com for more ideas.
Some family farms offer hayrides, corn mazes, places to picnic and evening bonfires in addition to the traditional pumpkin patch. Search for them at Pumpkinpatchesandmore.org/KYpumpkins.php.
One example is about a half-hour drive from Lexington at Devine's Corn Maze and Pumpkin Patch, a family farm in Mercer County, at 623 Talmage-Mayo Road.
Martina and Glenn Devine have operated a dairy farm for 34 years. Eleven years ago, they bought additional acreage and began growing and selling fruits and vegetables including sweet corn, strawberries and pumpkins.
Their 10-acre complex of corn mazes is enhanced this time of year with hayrides, farm animals and kid-friendly amusements.
"This is a working farm, which is an atmosphere we want to maintain, instead of something more commercial," Martina Devine says.
The whole family is involved in the venture. Glenn Devine drives the tractor-pulled flatbed wagon for rides to the pumpkin patch. He grows, by his estimate, 12,000 pumpkins each year, including round orange varieties like Iron Man and Magic Lantern, the ghostly white Luna and some pie-filling favorites, green and white striped Cushaws.
Devine says he enjoys the work here more than dairy farm chores.
"I love visiting with people, and the work is a lighter load and not as time-consuming," he says.
Son Jason mows the corn maze pattern each summer and is called occasionally to help the hopelessly lost discover the way out of the maze. This year, there is a University of Kentucky Wildcats theme.
On Oct. 28 and 29, the corn maze will be turned in to a "field of horror." Daughter-in-law Christie Devine schedules group visits and maintains the farm's Web site, Devinescornmaze.com. She says the historical home on the property along the Salt River was built in 1773 for James McAfee, and it's one of the oldest stone farmhouses east of the Mississippi River.
Nearby, at another family farm in eastern Fayette County, Mechealle Hanks grows pumpkins and squash on a smaller scale.
"I do this just because it's fun. My son says it keeps me off the street and out of trouble," she says. "I put up a nice little display at the front gate of the farm in the fall, and the neighbors love it."
Among others, pumpkin varieties in her home-grown display include a dark-green Bliss with beige speckles, little oval ivory egg gourds that could be mistaken for really big eggs, and one of her favorites this year, the rusty orange-and-green Fairytale or Musque de Provence.
A few years ago, Hanks started with two "scraggly little pumpkins," and now she has about a one-acre patch with 17 varieties.
Hanks shared some of her extra squash seeds with me in May to try in my home garden. We both found that even if you start with an orderly plan, the vines quickly take over. A good method for sorting them out is to keep pictures and descriptions to eventually identify the mature fruits.
"Sometimes you can't tell what they are until they are fully ripe," she says. The vines take over, tiny tendrils latching on and climbing up to cover fence tops with two-foot-wide leaves, snaking across lawns and intruding into neighbors' yards.
One single gourd vine, a survivor from last year's plantings, crept up a tree trunk in my back yard, and suddenly there are large dipper gourds suspended from its higher branches.
Some of Hanks' favorites, strong growers that are easy to cultivate, are Jarrahdales, dark smoky-blue ribbed squash that grow to about the size of a slightly deflated basketball. "They are usually prolific and bug resistant," she says.
We found success with Knuckleheads, which resemble ordinary large orange pumpkins but sport sporadic warty bumps. Kids would enjoy growing those and small white Baby Boos and multi-patterned Daisy gourds, which fit just right in little hands.
No matter where you grow, vines need rich soil, sun and plenty of water. Most varieties take slightly more than three months to mature, so planting by about mid-June is essential. Hanks found that drip irrigation works quite efficiently in her patch.
"Pumpkins take a lot of water, and vigilance for bugs and critters," said Hanks, who retired as the technology and information director at the Lexington Herald-Leader. Also, because pumpkins are sweet, all sorts of local wildlife are attracted to them. Holleran says that deer bypassed a tempting stand of alfalfa to chew holes in his largest pumpkins over the summer, and Hanks is doing battle with marauding groundhogs and "a kabillion rabbits."
In my city garden, I've seen critters, too. And I'm thinking that I should start seeds indoors next year, to prevent birds from pecking them out of the ground before they get a chance to sprout. Animal control tops my list for next year, with insect control — especially for squash vine borers — a close second.
My new "pumpkin buddy" Hanks summed up the season in a recent email: "This was another learning year for me. I think I'm starting to get the hang of pumpkin growing. If I ever get it under control, I would think about selling at a farmers market."
For now, it is great hobby and a way to share a bountiful harvest with friends.