Pick your homegrown pumpkins at exactly the right time by using these essential tips and visual clues.
Pinpointing when to harvest pumpkins from your garden can feel a little like a riddle. When is too soon or too late? Leave the mind teasers to the little goblins who visit your door for trick-or-treating and learn how to tell when pumpkins are ready to harvest. There are several straightforward clues to look for that can help remove the mystery from determining ripeness of pumpkins and gourds of all colors, shapes, and sizes. When harvested at the pinnacle of maturity, pumpkins can last for two months or more. Whether you're growing 2-pound orbs for making pie or huge squash for jack-o-lanterns, here's what you need to know about how and when to harvest pumpkins.
When Pumpkins Are Ready to Harvest
Pumpkins, like watermelon, strawberries, and grapes, ripen best attached to the vine. Once removed from the vine, the sugar content of the fruit will not increase, which makes harvest timing especially important for pumpkins you want to use for baking and cooking. While sugar content isn't a factor in pumpkins used for front porch decor, the process of maturing on the vine does help pumpkins resist rot. To figure out exactly when to harvest pumpkins, check the rind of the fruit and the plant.
Fully Developed Color
Know the mature color of the pumpkin varieties you're growing to help you gauge maturity. Most pumpkins and gourds develop their color over several weeks at the tail end of the growing season. While the exterior of the fruit is morphing from green to shades of orange or white or blue green depending on the variety, the seeds inside are forming. When the pumpkin reaches its uniform, mature color, the seeds are also mature and capable of producing a new crop of next season. Pumpkins harvested too early might not have viable seeds, so keep that in mind if you want to save some seeds to grow next year.
If frost strikes early and kills the vine before the fruit can fully color up, pumpkins will continue to develop their mature color, provided they've already begun the process of coloring. The same is true for fruit on vines that are killed by pests or disease. If a pumpkin or gourd has patches of mature color, it will continue to ripen.
Still maturing pumpkins have a shiny exterior. The skin of young fruit appears bright and will reflect the sun's light. As a pumpkin matures, the rind will lose its sheen and become dull or matte-like. Avoid harvesting shiny fruits in your garden (or at the u-pick patch). Choose a dull pumpkin instead; it's more likely fully mature and will last for weeks longer on your doorstep.
Dying Squash Vines
Healthy pumpkin vines begin to yellow and die when fruit is mature. Don't be deceived by a prematurely yellowing plant though; drought and pests often destroy a vine before the fruit is fully mature. To prevent pests or disease from damaging any developing pumpkins, pick the fruit and put them in a warm, dry place to continue ripening.
A thick, leathery rind is a definite indicator of maturity for all types of pumpkins and gourds. The rind should be so tough that your fingernail cannot dent it. A tough rind prevents bacteria from making its way into the fruit and causing rot.
Warm, dry conditions promote hard pumpkin rinds. Encourage immature pumpkins to harden their skins by placing them in a sunny spot to cure for 7 to 10 days. Pumpkins can tolerate frost, but a freeze will quickly weaken the rind and shorten storage life. Bring them inside when a freeze is predicted.
How to Harvest Pumpkins
When it's finally time to harvest your pumpkins and gourds, use a pair of sharp pruners to cut the fruit from the vine. Leave a 3- to 4-inch stem or handle for pumpkins and a 1-inch stem for gourds. That little piece of stem is not just for looks; it creates a barrier against bacteria and fungi.
Test Garden Tip: Making your harvesting cuts on either side of the stem that attaches your pumpkin to the main vine helps increase the shelf life of your fruit. The stem actually loses less water when cut this way, which means your pumpkins won't dry out as fast.
Tips for Storing Pumpkins
Maximize the life of pumpkins and gourds by cleaning the skin with a 10 percent bleach and water solution. Then rinse with water and let them dry. When using your homegrown pumpkins for fall decor, display them in a cool, dry place where they're protected from moisture. Take them inside when a freeze is predicted. Store squash you plan to eat, such as pie pumpkins, in a cool, well-ventilated garage or basement where temperatures stay around 60℉.