For many Americans, pumpkins mean that fall is here. With anticipation, coffee shops, restaurants and grocery stores kick off their pumpkin flavor promotions in late August, a month before fall officially begins. And shoppers start snapping up fresh winter decorative produce, like pumpkins and squash, on hot, muggy days in late summer.
But these fruits, yes botanically pumpkins and gourds are fruits, they don’t last forever. And they may not even make it to Halloween if you buy and carve them too early.
Here are some tips that can help your epic carving outlast Dia de los Muertos:
This may seem like a no-brainer, but shop for a pumpkin the same way you shop in the produce aisle. Whether you plan to carve them or not, choose pumpkins that aren’t damaged, dented, or diseased. Is the stem loose? Is there a clear break in the crust? Are there water soaked stains on the exterior?
Post-harvest diseases, those that occur after the squash is removed from the vine, can occur anywhere between the field they were grown in and the front step. A bruise or crack will allow opportunistic fungi, bacteria, water molds, and small insects to invade and colonize your gourds. Keeping the skin flawless and the stem intact ensures that your prized gourd has a longer shelf life.
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The journey home also matters. Most of us transport pets, children, muddy hiking boots, and food in our cars, making our vehicles giant petri dishes that harbor common environmental molds and bacteria. Some of those microbes could colonize your unsuspecting pumpkins.
Secure your pumpkins on the way home so they don’t get bruises or stem breakage. My family often wear seat belts to protect ours. Once home, do not carry the pumpkin by the stem as it can break, especially if it is large and heavy.
Pumpkins spend most of their lives in the fields, growing in soil teeming with fungi, bacteria, water molds, and soil-dwelling animals like nematodes, insects, and mites. Removing these organisms and any eggs that may have attached to the skin of the pumpkin will help preserve it.
To get rid of them, clean the gourds, preferably with a bleach wipe or two. This is especially important if you plan to carve them: piercing the dirty shell with a sharp tool will draw these eager visitors deeper into the heart of your gourd. Make sure to use clean tools too. Microbes can reside and multiply in small amounts of pumpkin scraps stuck in the teeth of dirty carving knives.
Even if you’re not carving the pumpkin, cleaning it isn’t a bad idea, as it may have small bruises or cracks that are easy to miss.
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Much of the work of carving a pumpkin involves separating the stringy strands and seeds from the tougher flesh that makes up the walls of the pumpkin. As you scoop the entrails out of the squash, thoroughly inspect the interior walls for any soft rotten patches or dark tissue, which may have been colonized before or after harvest by bacteria, fungi, or water molds. Sick pumpkins sometimes produce an unpleasant odor, so use your nose, too.
If you encounter these problems while carving, you can try carving another pumpkin. You can also paint your pumpkins instead of carving them, which avoids the need to look inside.
Some online tutorials and YouTube videos recommend thinning the walls of the pumpkins to better allow candles or LED lighting to pass through. But if you make the walls too thin, the squash’s fangs will turn into tabs of skin that curl inward as the flesh dries and warps. A pumpkin without teeth does not scare anyone.
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Another advantage of keeping thicker walls is that it allows you to try a 3D carving. This involves shaping the surface of the gourd as if carving a piece of wood, without breaking the shell, and can produce spectacular results.
Some people soak their carved gourds in diluted bleach or vinegar water after they are finished. But this technique is a double-edged sword: Adding more free moisture to your masterpiece invites wind-blown mold spores and rain-splashed bacteria to colonize it. However, applying a light coating of Vaseline or vegetable oil to all exposed parts can extend the life of your carved pumpkin.
October is a wet month with frequent rains in many parts of the US. Rain falling on your pumpkin will invite all the neighborhood molds to settle in or on it. For this reason, keeping pumpkins on a covered porch or displaying them from the inside in a window can extend their shelf life.
It’s okay if mold forms inside, as not all fungi cause soft rots, diseases that cause wet spots that spread, become mushy, and turn black. If a pumpkin becomes too moldy on the inside walls, move it outdoors to prevent it from producing too many spores in your home.
When your pumpkin starts to get moldy and collapse, don’t throw it in a dumpster. Put it up for your neighborhood deer or on top of your compost pile. Or find a spot in your garden where you can watch it degrade over time, until it becomes soil in time for next year’s pumpkin patch.
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