If you wish to carve a pumpkin earlier, consider a surface carving instead of hollowing out the pumpkin or cutting all the way through the rind. A jack-o’-lantern with more of a surface carving will last longer than one that is cut all the way through. Try just drawing your design first onto the pumpkin’s surface and then following that line, carving beneath the line to dig out a feature… you can also use a pumpkin carving stencil!
Or, paint your pumpkin instead of carving it, especially if you want to decorate the home or office earlier in the month.
When to Pick Your Pumpkin
We prefer to harvest pumpkins when they are fully mature with a deep, solid color. The shell should be hard and not easily punctured by a fingernail.
That said, pumpkins DO ripen off the vine if they’re stored correctly. We’d only harvest early if we were expecting a hard freeze as a pumpkin can’t survive more than a light frost.
Ideally, harvest on a dry and sunny day.
Pick a pumpkin with a solid stem and no soft spots on any side (be sure to check the opposite end from the stem!). Find a pumpkin from a farm or local nursery if possible, as it will be fresher than pumpkins trucked in from far away.
Also, do NOT pick up a pumpkin by its stem, which can break easily; the stem continues to feed nutrients to the fruit after cutting it from the vine.
5 Tips to Keep Your Pumpkin From Rotting
Here are some ideas to help keep your carved pumpkins last longer.
Before carving, cooperative extensions recommend washing the pumpkin with cool, soapy water, and then rinsing in a 10 percent bleach solution and letting it dry completely. This level of bleach shouldn’t hard wildlife.
After carving, submerge your pumpkin again in a 10 percent bleach solution for at least 8 hours. This can be helpful in killing off bacteria that can cause mold to grow and the pumpkin to rot faster.
When you are hollowing out the pumpkin, do a very thorough cleaning of the pumpkin’s inside, removing not only the seeds, but also scraping out every strand of stringy pumpkin flesh and gooey moistness to slow down microbial growth. This is a great time to save the pumpkin seeds for planting as well.
You can seal any cuts by lining the inside of the pumpkin with petroleum jelly, which can prevent moisture loss. If you do this, do not use a real candle, but use a battery-operated candle instead since petroleum jelly is flammable.
In general, we do not advise real candle. Their warmth accelerates the rotting process.
Keep the pumpkin cool when not on display if the temperature is still warm outside. Of course, in freezing weather, the pumpkin must be brought inside or it will disintegrate.
More Ways to Preserve a Carved Pumpkin
Another way to help carved pumpkins last longer is to preserve them. Here are suggestions from Almanac readers:
Wipe down all surfaces of the pumpkin with a vinegar-water solution (1 part vinegar to 1 part water) to kill bacteria and fungal spores. You can then spray the pumpkin daily with this solution. If you’re only going to apply one treatment, this is the one to choose.
Place a packet of silica gel inside the pumpkin to absorb moisture.
If your pumpkin is starting to degrade early on, try dumping it in an ice bath. However, you can only do this once. Pumpkins don’t respond well to too many temperature changes.
Bottom-line: we’d advise that you wait to carve your pumpkin as close to Halloween as possible!
5 Tips for Carving the Pumpkin
Here are some pumpkin-carving tips from a master. “Farmer Mike” Valladao has been carving pumpkins ever since he saw a 612-pound pumpkin at a festival.
When carving out the top of the pumpkin, be sure to angle the blade of the knife toward the center of the pumpkin to create a shelf for the top to rest on; otherwise, the top will fall straight into the pumpkin.
You don’t have to carve out the top! You can hollow it out from a hole in the back instead of the top, so that the look of the face isn’t affected. (Do not use a live candle if you’re hollowing out a hole in the back.)
Outline your design or face on the surface first. Farmer Mike first draws a line down the center to establish symmetry. Then he sketches the nose, the approximate center of the face.
Don’t use a serrated blade! Use a paring knife or a standard steak knife that’s not going to bend.
Use two hands at all times: one to control the blade and the other to control the pressure with which you cut (and thus the depth).
Try a three-dimensional face!
For the more adventurous carver, try making a 3D pumpkin face. You will need more than a knife. It helps to have a clay loop tool, which you can buy at a crafts store.
Peel the pumpkin’s skin off where you want to carve a face. Peel off that surface just as you would peel a carrot. Then draw your design on the pumpkin. Follow the lines, carving beneath the line, digging out the feature. For example, cut a line for a mouth and carve below. Exaggerate the features. (If you aren’t sure what teeth really look like or how the gum line works, smile and look in the mirror.) Take care not to jab the blade into the pumpkin; you don’t want to cut all the way through the rind—except to determine its depth.
Not many can carve quite like Farmer Mike Valladao, who’s a seasoned pro, but we thought we’d share some of his amazing creations for inspiration! All photos taken by Susan Valladao.
Hope you have fun carving pumpkins this year? We sure did with our kids!
Disposing of Your Pumpkin
To dispose of your pumpkin, add it to the compost pile as a good use of the leftover organic matter for future gardening.
If the pumpkin shell is still intact, and non-toxic decorative materials have been used, you can process and eat it. See our favorite pumpkin recipes.
Pumpkins can also be fed to livestock or local wildlife if no toxic decorative materials have been used.