Whether for fall decorating, delicious pies, or Halloween Jack-'o-lanterns, October is pumpkin time. If you're growing your own, how do you know when your pumpkin is ready to pick? And if you're selecting one from a local farmers market or vegetable stand, what should you look for to choose the best?
Home gardeners should harvest pumpkins when they are fully colored and their outer rinds are thick and tough enough that they can't easily be pierced with a thumbnail. But be sure to pick pumpkins before the first heavy frost. Otherwise they can suffer chilling injury that will keep them from storing well. Cut, rather than pull, pumpkins from the vine, leaving several inches of stem attached. But never carry a pumpkin by its stem. If its stem breaks off, the pumpkin won't keep long.
Select only the best specimens for storage, without bruises, cuts, or soft spots. For the longest storage, cure your pumpkins to dry and harden their shells completely. Place in a warm (75-85 degrees F is ideal), well-ventilated spot for a week or two -- perhaps near your furnace or on an enclosed porch. After curing, store pumpkins a cool, dark spot (50- 60 degrees F), such as an unheated spare room or cool closet. Check them periodically and remove any that show signs of rot.
If you're choosing a pumpkin for carving, take the advice of University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Ron Wolford and select one with a lighter orange rind. These are easier to carve than darker orange varieties because the skin is not as hard. (The lighter varieties don't keep as long in storage, however.) Use the thumbnail test described above to make sure your choice is fully mature and check to see that 1-2 inches of stem is still attached. After carving, Wolford suggests coating the cut surfaces of the Jack-'o-lantern with petroleum jelly or vegetable oil to prolong its decorative lifespan.
If pie making is your goal, select a variety bred for sweet, tasty flesh, not size, such as 'Small Sugar?' and 'Baby Pam'. These smaller varieties have smoother, denser flesh with a higher sugar content than the large varieties bred for carving and decoration. In addition to its delicious taste, bright orange pumpkin flesh is high in fiber, low in calories, and loaded with healthful beta-carotene.
To find out more about pumpkins, including their history and lots of interesting pumpkin facts, check out this great resource from the University of Illinois Extension at Pumpkins and More.