The round orange pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) is actually an easy-to-grow member of the squash family. Whether you grow your own pumpkin patch or purchase from the grocery store, you can save the pumpkins for use in fall decorations, carving into Jack-o-lanterns or baking. While winter squash like pumpkins can be cooked immediately after harvesting, they must be cured if you need to store them until it's time to carve them for Halloween or cook them up for pumpkin pies.
Harvest the Pumpkins
When the vines in the pumpkin patch shrivel and turn brown, between 95 and 120 days after planting the seeds, it's time to harvest the pumpkins. Your pumpkins should have hard, deeply colored rinds and if you thump the fruit, it should have a hollow sound. Be sure to harvest the pumpkins before the first frost or they'll turn soft and become unusable.
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Put on your gloves, long sleeves and safety goggles, then cut the dry, spiky stem with pruners. Leave at least 4 inches of stem on the pumpkin. Don't try to lift the pumpkin by the stem, it isn't strong enough to hold a mature pumpkin.
Save the Pumpkins
The why and how to store pumpkins is determined by how long it will be before you can use them as a Jack-o-lantern or in the kitchen. An uncured pumpkin will last a few weeks, but will decay long before a cured pumpkin. To cure pumpkins, put them in direct sunlight at 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit for two weeks. If the weather is already turning cold, a warm sunroom or enclosed porch that receives full sun during the day will suffice; put a heater in the room if necessary to keep it toasty warm.
After curing in the sun, move the pumpkins to a cool, dry, well-ventilated location where the temperature is between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Do not refrigerate the pumpkins or put them in a damp location; the pumpkin will rot if exposed to moisture. A properly cured uncut pumpkin will last up to six months.
Keep Carved Pumpkins Fresh
How to keep a pumpkin fresh after carving requires a few steps, but will keep your Jack-o-lantern looking nicely spooky rather than melting into a gooey mess on the front step. Begin by mixing 1 teaspoon chlorine bleach with 4 cups water. Wipe or spray the entire outer surface of the pumpkin and allow to air-dry.
Carve the pumpkin. Completely remove the seeds and stringy interior. After carving, submerge the entire pumpkin in a bucket with a solution of 2/3 cup bleach and water. Let it soak overnight, or up to 24 hours, then remove and air-dry.
Once completely dry, apply a layer of petroleum jelly over all cut surfaces, inside and out. Because petroleum jelly is flammable, do not use a candle inside the pumpkin; use battery-operated votive candles or glow sticks instead. Keep the pumpkin out of direct sunlight and take it inside or onto a sheltered porch if rain threatens. Prevent premature shriveling by spritzing the pumpkin daily with 1/2 teaspoon bleach and 2 cups water in a spray bottle; this moisturizes the rind and helps prevent mold from developing on the Jack-o-lantern.