If there’s one holiday that celebrates imagination and creativity, it’s Halloween. That’s one of the things I like about it—especially when people conjure up their own clever costumes and go all out decorating pumpkins to display. Whether you’re one of those who carve intricate patterns for stellar designs (we have a couple of these in the family) or are content with a simple smiley face, you probably want that pumpkin to last at least until the trick-or-treaters come knocking. That’s where a little pumpkin preservation know-how comes in handy.
While pumpkins and other gourds are good keepers in general, once they’re carved, their days are numbered. Here are some tips for jack-o-lantern longevity:
Start with a good pumpkin.
On a recent visit to our local pumpkin patch, my grandson and I were on the hunt for an “upper case” pumpkin. (He’s recently learned the concept of upper and lower-case letters.) In addition to its size, you’ll probably consider the pumpkin’s shape. (When our kids were lower case, we did Burt and Ernie pumpkins, and shape was a major factor for those.)
Neither size nor shape is a major factor in pumpkin preservation, but there are other things to look for—or look out for—if you want your pumpkin to last after carving. Choose one that’s firm, with no soft spots. A soft spot means it’s already starting to deteriorate. Also avoid pumpkins that are dented or bruised or have dark spots on them. (Dark spots on the tops, especially, are telltale signs that they’ve been frost damaged.)
When you can (and surely you can), buy a local pumpkin. Chances are better you’ll find one that hasn’t been tossed and battered in transit. Best in terms of handling, of course, is to grow your own or pick your own pumpkin at a local farm and nestle it in for a safe ride home in your vehicle.
Start carving upside down.
This might go against the grain of every pumpkin-carving tradition you cherish, but consider trying this! Rather than cut a hole in the top of the pumpkin for scooping and candle access, turn the pumpkin over and cut a hole in the bottom. When you’re finished carving your pumpkin, leave the bottom off and simply place it over the candle or light. This will allow moisture to escape rather than pool in the bottom of the pumpkin. It also makes it super easy to light the candle, if you’re using one!
Completely clean out your pumpkin.
Start by thoroughly washing and drying the outside of your pumpkin. (This is something you can do before carving time.) Once prep begins, everyone is eager to get the scooping-out task over with so they can start carving—but leaving strings and seeds and all those wet pumpkin guts inside only invites quick decay. So for the sake of pumpkin preservation, do a good job scraping out the insides. Those little scraping tools are worth the dollar investment, though a big metal spoon will also work.
Consider putting those insides to good use. Here’s a super article on cooking pumpkins seeds and flesh.
Most directions for killing the bacteria that cause pumpkin decay rely on bleach. And I’m sure that works well. But here are a couple of more natural options that I prefer. They may not kill as many bacteria as bleach, but they do slow the decaying process, and I’m okay with that tradeoff, especially since the kids can do the natural options themselves without worry.
• Lemon juice. Simply rub lemon juice on all the exposed surfaces or spray liberally on all the exposed surfaces. Lemon inhibits browning and decay. (It works on pumpkins much like it does on apples.)
• Peppermint. Combine peppermint essential oil with water (about 20 drops per cup of water). Spray or rub on exposed surfaces. Other peppermint solutions, like peppermint castile soap, also work. (Some people add borax, too, which you can find in the laundry aisle. Borax is a naturally occurring mineral, but its non-toxicity is debatable.)
Oil your masterpiece
Once your carving is complete, brush the exposed cuts with vegetable oil. This will help keep those edges from drying out and shriveling up.
Consider alternatives to candles
I like “real” candles, but they do heat (cook, actually) the inside of the pumpkin. Battery-operated candles don’t give off heat. They also have the advantage of being safe for wee ones and easy to “light.” I don’t usually like “pretend” items, but the flickering candles do deliver some charm.
Provide climate control
While moisture can cause rotting, the sun can cause your pumpkin to dry out and shrivel up. If that’s not the look you’re going for, think about where you display your pumpkin. If Jack is sitting on your sunny front steps, he’s going to heat up and deteriorate much faster than if he’s tucked in a cool, shady spot. If your jack-o-lantern has spent too much time sunbathing, revive it by placing it in a plastic bag in the refrigerator overnight. Spritz it with water or lemon juice or the peppermint solution first for best results.
Tend to it daily
If you really want your pumpkin to stay in top shape, spray the insides with your solution of choice (lemon juice, peppermint) every day. If it’s started to wilt, rehydrate it by soaking in water. You can just place it in a bucket (or tub if you have several pumpkins) of cool water overnight (or at least a few hours). Add some peppermint oil or lemon juice for good measure.
Whatever stage your pumpkin is in come Halloween night, embrace it. Without going all zombie apocalypse, a little shriveling and distortion is, after all, in keeping with the holiday. Shrivels and dark spots might even add to the atmosphere you’re after!
What are your tips for pumpkin preservation? Are you carving a pumpkin this year? Send us a pic of your creation!