Pumpkin Care: Not just hocus pocus

Published 7:00 am Saturday, October 21, 2023

By Justin Miller – Alabama Cooperative Extension

Nothing says fall is here quite like pumpkins. Whether individuals choose to decorate with whole ones or carve them into scary faces, pumpkins add a fun element to any fall décor. To make pumpkins and jack-o’-lanterns last this season, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System has a few care tips to follow.

Pumpkin Pickin’

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One of the most important steps to pumpkin care is choosing the right pumpkin. Mallory Kelley, an Alabama Extension home grounds, gardens and home pests regional agent, said the healthier a pumpkin is, the longer it will last.

“When you go to choose your pumpkin, you want to make sure that there are no cracks or blemishes,” Kelley said. “Also, make sure the pumpkin is very firm and not soft, as that is a sign of the beginning stages of rot.”

Care for Whole Pumpkins

When mapping out where to put pumpkins for decoration, there are certain locations that are better than others. Generally speaking, outdoor conditions that are dry, shaded, cool and have good air circulation are the best for pumpkins to thrive in. Kelley recommends displaying pumpkins on wooden or concrete surfaces, rather than directly on the soil.

“The ground is going to cause pumpkins to rot faster, so it’s best to place them on a brick, a piece of wood or even a plastic plate,” Kelley said. “This elevation prevents soil contact and allows for air circulation to keep that area dry.”

Some pumpkin varieties, such as the Cinderella-type pumpkins, are known for their unique shapes. While these add cool texture to your fall décor, their crevices can be the perfect place for rot to establish. If water does collect in these crevices from rain or when you are watering nearby plants, Kelley said to empty the water as soon as possible.

When using real pumpkins for indoor decorations, consider where to put them.

“When pumpkins start to deteriorate, it usually starts at the bottom with rotting juices leaking out,” Kelley said. “So, make sure you put them in an area where that is OK or place them on a plastic plate that can protect surfaces.”

Care for Carved Pumpkins

While no one can completely prevent rot, there are some preservation measures to take before and after carving the pumpkin. Before carving, do the following care tips to prevent microbial growth:

Rinse the pumpkin with soapy water.

Mix 1 tablespoon of bleach per 1 gallon of water in a large bucket. Submerge the pumpkin in the mixture, holding it under the water for two minutes.

After soaking, let the pumpkin air dry.

Once the pumpkin is carved, spray the same bleach mixture on the pumpkin every day or add a layer of petroleum jelly to the inside and outside of the pumpkin to keep moisture in the pumpkin.

“Spraying the outside of the pumpkin with acrylic spray will also prevent fungal spores from penetrating from the skin and starting the rot process,” Kelley said.

In addition to preventing microbial growth, Kelley said using battery-operated lights to illuminate the jack-o’-lantern will extend the life of the pumpkin. The heat from traditional candles will cook the inside of the pumpkin, making it wilt faster.

While carving pumpkins is one of the best traditions of fall, the timing has to be just right. Carving a pumpkin too early will lead to a droopy jack-o’-lantern face when Halloween arrives.

“Carved pumpkins deteriorate much faster than whole pumpkins do,” Kelley said. “Even if you take the steps that I mentioned to prevent rot, I recommend not carving your pumpkin more than one week before Halloween.”

If one simply can’t wait and wants to decorate a pumpkin now, Kelley said painting pumpkins is a popular alternative. This is less dangerous and messy than carving with a knife and is a great activity for small children.

More Information

Don’t let the ghoulish sights on your front porch be rotting pumpkins. Use these tips to preserve pumpkins this fall. For more information about pumpkins, visit the Alabama Extension website, www.aces.edu

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System takes the expertise of Auburn University and Alabama A&M University to the people. Our educators in all 67 counties are community partners — bringing practical ways to better our homes, farms, people and the world around us. Our research extends knowledge and improves lives.