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Picking the Perfect Jack-O-Lantern Pumpkin

Linda Stein, Master Gardener

Picking out and carving pumpkins is a favorite family activity in October. Read on for tips about how to choose and carve your pumpkins and what to do with all those seeds.

Picking the Perfect Jack-O-Lantern Pumpkin

As October arrives, many children and their families are thinking about Halloween.  If your family is like mine, pumpkin carving is an essential part of that event.  You can be overwhelmed looking at the vats full of pumpkins at the grocery store or the rows and rows of pumpkins in your nearby pumpkin patch.  So, when should you pick your pumpkin and what should you look for in the myriad of options?

Pumpkins generally last 8 to 12 weeks after they are picked.  However, they will start to wilt within 5 to 10 days after they are hollowed out and carved.  So, plan accordingly.

How to Pick the Perfect Pumpkin

Cooking vs carving - Pumpkins used for cooking or for pie making look similar to those chosen to carve into Jack-O-Lanterns. However, there are differences.  These pumpkins are referred to as pie pumpkins or sugar pumpkins. They are generally smaller, denser and darker in color.  Their flesh is less stringy and sweeter.  Larger pumpkins used for carving or decorating are generally known as field pumpkins and besides being larger in size, also have a watery, stringy flesh which doesn’t work as well for cooking.

What to look for in a carving pumpkin

1.         Color- Color is not an indication of quality of pumpkin.  However, you should avoid a pumpkin with blemishes, cracks, splits or soft spots.

2.         Stem - Make sure your pumpkin has at least a 1-2 inch stem.  If the stem is cut down too low the pumpkin will decay quickly or may already be decaying. And make sure the stem is firm and bright colored.  If not the pumpkin might have been picked and stored for an extended period of time.  Since it is important to retain the stem, make sure that you don’t risk breaking it off by carrying the pumpkin by the stem.

3.         Scratch test - Test for the maturity of a pumpkin by gently pressing your fingernail into the rind. A mature pumpkin will resist scratching. If the surface is easily penetrated, the pumpkin was picked too early and will end up rotting.

4.         Poke test - Gently squeeze or press your fingers into the fruit. Pay close attention to the blossom end, or bottom, and around the stem. A fresh pumpkin should be solid to the touch.

5.         Tap Test - Your pumpkin should sound slightly hollow when tapped gently.

6.         Weight - You want to pick a pumpkin that is heavy.  However, a very heavy pumpkin may indicate thicker walls which will be more difficult to carve.


Since the pumpkin will start to wilt in about 5 to 10 days, think about carving your pumpkin upside down by hollowing it out from the bottom. That way as the pumpkin begins to wilt, the flesh won’t sink in from the top.

If the walls are so thick that they are difficult to carve, you can shave the walls on the inside.


Your Jack-O-Lantern should be stored in cooler conditions but avoid frost.

Some sources recommend wiping the fruit off with a solution of bleach water to reduce rot and decay.

What About Those Seeds?

Another family tradition is roasting the seeds collected from the inside of the pumpkin you’re carving.  Pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of protein, unsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants, dietary fiber, magnesium and Vitamin K.   But beware, they are also high in calories.  In addition to enjoying them as a snack, WebMD also suggests the following uses:

•            Add them to smoothies

•            Mix them into granola, yogurt, or cereal

•            Use them to add some extra crunch to a salad

•            Garnish any meal, like soups, chicken dishes, or pastas

•            Blend them with other ingredients in a dip like hummus, pesto, or guacamole

•            Bake them into cookies and breads

Happy picking, carving and Halloween!


Photo credits: University of Minnesota Extension (1), Sarah Heidtke (2, 3)

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