Published on 10/10/02

Proper pumpkin care leads to happy haunting

By Wayne McLaurin
University of Georgia

Pumpkins are one of the fun crops in the vegetable garden. They make delicious desserts and great fall decorations and can be painted or carved into jack-o'-lanterns. But to make the best use of them, you need to harvest and store them properly.

Pick pumpkins when they develop a deep, uniform, orange color and, like any fall squash, a hard rind. The vines are usually dying back at this time.

Avoid harvesting when the fruit is wet, as this will encourage decay. Pick a sunny, dry day.

When harvesting pumpkins, handle them carefully to avoid cuts and bruises. Halloween pumpkins are most attractive when a stem or "handle" is carefully allowed to remain.

Leave the stems

Pumpkins with stems are less likely to rot, too. So, cut the fruit from the vine with sharp pruning shears, leaving a 4- to 5-inch "handle."

Don't, however, carry pumpkins by their stems. They're not really handles. Always pick up your pumpkin from the bottom. The stem may not be able to support the weight of the fruit and may break off, leaving it vulnerable to microorganisms that cause rot.

Pumpkins can remain in the garden through a light, vine-killing frost. A light frost won't damage the pumpkins themselves. However, all mature pumpkins should be harvested before temperatures drop into the mid to low 30s. Green, immature pumpkins won't turn orange after a frost.

Cure pumpkins

After the harvest, cure your pumpkins at 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit and 80 percent relative humidity for 10 days. Curing helps harden their skins and heal any cuts and scratches.

After curing, store the pumpkins in a cool, dry place (50 to 55 degrees). When storing pumpkins, place them in a single layer where they don't touch one another. Good air circulation helps prevent moisture from forming on the surfaces of the fruit and retards the growth of decay fungi and bacteria.

Placing the pumpkins in piles generates unwanted heat which may result in the rotting of some fruit. Promptly remove and discard any pumpkins that show signs of decay.

Properly harvested, cured and stored, pumpkins should be in excellent condition for Halloween painting or carving in late October to ensure a happy haunting.

Wayne McLaurin is a professor emeritus of horticulture with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.