Many crops are ripening earlier this year. Warm early-spring temperatures allowed gardeners to plant early and hot summer conditions favored growth. Pumpkins are no exception, and they pose a special problem since many gardeners want to save them for use at Halloween, which is still more than two months away.
When harvesting has to take place early, selecting mature pumpkins, curing them properly, and storing them under the right conditions are important so that your Jack O’lanterns will look great in October.
Pumpkins will rot if harvested too young or if allowed to stay in the field once they are mature and exposed to freezing temperatures. Mature pumpkins should be uniformly colored across the entire fruit — orange, white, gray or blue — depending on the variety. Look for the mature coloration of your variety indicated on the seed packet for a guide to ripeness. Mature pumpkins have hard, shiny shells that can’t be easily punctured by a fingernail. Once your pumpkin reaches this stage, it’s time for curing.
Curing is a process that causes the pumpkin skin to harden and promotes healing of small wounds in the skin. Most pumpkins have already been cured when you purchase them at the garden center or store, but if you’re growing your own, it is important to allow time for curing. Once a pumpkin is mature, cure it by allowing it to remain in the garden during dry, sunny weather, ideally, 80 to 85 degrees, for seven to 14 days.
If the weather is turning cold or rainy when your pumpkins reach maturity, harvest and place them in an area with 80 to 85 degrees and 80 to 85 percent relative humidity for about 10 days. A dry garage or shed works well. If pumpkins must be left in the field longer than desired, hay can be placed under them to prevent contact with damp soil and rot.
Harvest by cutting fruits away from the vine. Leave a good length of stem for a handle. Trying to harvest by snapping the stems often causes damage to the pumpkin, and pumpkins without handles usually do not store well. But don’t pick your pumpkin up by the handle, because it may break off!
Transport pumpkins from the garden with care. If transporting in a vehicle, be sure to surround them with soft material and transport them so that they won't roll around and be damaged.
Washing pumpkins is not required, but it often helps them keep longer. Wipe down or wash the exterior with a dilute bleach solution, about 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water, and allow them to dry thoroughly before placing them in storage. This removes surface bacteria and fungal spores.
After curing, pumpkins can be kept in cool storage at approximately 50 to 60 degrees for 10 weeks or more; 50 to 70 percent relative humidity is important to prevent shriveling or dehydration.
Our grandparents used to have root cellars, which were an ideal place for vegetable storage, but most people don’t have one these days. Pumpkins can be stored in a cool basement, which in many older homes may have just the right humidity level. Place pumpkins, not touching each other on a shelf in a cool corner or in a single layer on a pallet up off the floor.
In homes with lower humidity, place them in a crate, box or bushel in ventilated plastic bags. Or cover them with a plastic sheet to help retain moisture. Check on the pumpkins periodically to make sure that excess moisture is not accumulating around or beneath them, and to remove any that are beginning to rot.
Pumpkin seeds can be saved to plant the following spring. Seeds should be soaked for 24 hours to loosen the adhering pulp, cleaned well and then allowed to dry. Seeds can be stored in a clean, air-tight container in a cool, dry place.
This is a fun project for kids because seeds will not always produce an identical pumpkin to those from this year’s garden. Pumpkin, melon and squash seeds are a great way to attract cardinals and other birds plus squirrels to feeders during the winter months.