Everything you need to know about pumpkins this fall.
This time of year conjures up images of cooler weather, autumn leaves and anything pumpkin flavored. Pumpkins are colorful, festive and nutritious, and they go hand in hand with fall traditions. But, did you know that these American-native plants have been cultivated for thousands of years, and carving them is a tradition that originated hundreds of years ago with the arrival of Irish immigrants?
Despite this enduring history, picking the perfect pumpkin for cooking or carving can be intimidating. Fortunately, you can soothe your fears and make the best selection by knowing when to harvest, how to care for the fruit when removing it and how to store it.
For the gardeners who plant seeds in the spring, now is the time to harvest your bounty, which usually takes 75-115 days from sowing to picking, depending on the variety. The ripened fruit can be orange, white, gray or blue-gray. When thumped with a finger, it should sound hollow, and the rind should be shiny and very difficult to scratch. Additionally, the stem should be hard, requiring sharp pruners or a knife when cutting it from the vine. Leaving 3-4 inches of the stem will slow its decay. Lastly, handle with care to prevent bruising. Do not lift or carry it by the stalk, since the pumpkin can detach and break; stemless pumpkins don’t store well.
Once harvested, allow the pumpkins to cure in the sun for seven-10 days. This will toughen their skin, and significantly improve flavor. However, they may need to be moved to a shed or garage on cold nights, or covered with a blanket. Once cured, clean them with a weak solution of one-part bleach to 10-parts water; this will kill any pathogens and remove soil. Dry them thoroughly before storing in a cool, dry location. Do not allow the stored fruit to touch; this allows air circulation and slows rot. Cured pumpkins may keep for two to three months.
When pumpkins have been harvested, cured and stored, it’s time to get creative. For cooking and baking, you’ll want to use a pumpkin that has a smooth, dense grain and a mild, sweet flavor; they’re often labeled as sugar pumpkins or pie pumpkins. They can be cooked, frozen, canned or used in a recipe. If saving the seeds for next year’s garden, wash the pumpkin pulp off the seeds, and let them dry thoroughly before storing them in a tightly sealed jar.
If you don’t have a garden, or didn’t include pumpkins in your garden this year, there are many shapes and sizes to choose from at the farm stand, pumpkin patch or supermarket. To pick the best pumpkin for carving, look for one with consistent color throughout. And, just like when harvesting a ripe pumpkin, look for the hollow sound when thumped. Choose a firm pumpkin that has no scratches, bruises or dark spots, which may cause it to decay quicker. Sit it down to make sure it’s flat, so it won’t roll around. Lastly, check that the stem is green, firm and secure.
The final product depends on the weather, growing season and a host of other factors. Whatever is chosen, all that really matters is making this colorful season memorable.
– Karen Garland is a discovery science teacher at Clark Creek Elementary. She enjoys beekeeping, chicken farming and volunteering
as a Georgia Master Gardener.