Harvesting, curing and storing pumpkins
Pumpkins are planted in spring and harvested in autumn. That means they take up space for anything from 4-6 months so harvesting, curing and storing them carefully is a must if we are not to waste that long growing period and have our own supply throughout winter.
How to harvest pumpkin
- use secateurs or loppers to cut the stem leaving 10cm of stalk attached
- do not carry the pumpkin using the stalk as a handle as the stalk may pull away (use immediately if this happens)
- select pumpkins individually over 3-4 weeks for harvest readiness, as those on the one vine will not all ripen at the same time
- handle carefully and avoid bruising or cuts in the rind and line a wheelbarrow with straw if transporting them in this way
What are the signs that a pumpkin is ready for picking?
- the stem needs to have withered i.e changed from green to brown and dried out. The withered stem seals the pumpkin from insect entry and prevents rot where the stalk attaches to the fruit
- the rind needs to be hard and does not mark when a fingernail is pushed into it
- it has a hollow sound when knocked on
- it has turned the colour typical of the variety
- it may smell pumpkiny around the stalk
- as the pumpkin is nearing ripeness, the leaves will begin to lose colour and crisp around the edges indicating the vine is dying
Can you pick a pumpkin too early? Definitely!
- pumpkins that do not exhibit the above characteristics begin to deteriorate and then rot very quickly
- if the pumpkin is a variety that grows green and changes colour as it ripens, it will not mature once harvested. If it was ‘almost’ mature, it may be possible to ripen it by exposing it to the sun and turning it every few days but there is no guarantee. Pumpkins that have begun to change colour may sometimes ripen
Can you pick a pumpkin too late? Yes!
- pumpkins need to be harvested before the first frost or before heavy rain occurs around the time of maturity. Do not allow pumpkins to sit on soggy soil. If they are not quite ready, raise them onto straw or a straw bale or even an off-cut of timber
- if you need to harvest early, store pumpkins in a warm place (27-30C) for two weeks
- once harvested, the rind needs to harden. To do this, place the pumpkin on its side so moisture cannot pool around the stalk or in the ridges, in a sunny spot, and turn every few days. A wooden deck or shelf is ideal for this.
- rest the pumpkin on newspaper or straw or a rack. It is important that air can circulate around the whole pumpkin and especially beneath it
- cure for at least a week but longer if possible
- do not store on bare ground or garden soil or concrete
- place straw or newspaper beneath the pumpkin and store it on its side
- store in a dark, cool, dry place, keeping the pumpkin dry. A temperature range of 10-16C is ideal. A higher temperatures will cause the pumpkin to become stringy, a lower one to lose quality
- store in a single layer
- inspect weekly to check for any soft spots including beneath the pumpkin. Discard any that are rotting
Pumpkin is often attacked by rats who love the sweet, soft flesh. They will bite into the rind and then hollow out the flesh, leaving the shell which may look, from a distance, as though it is still intact. The problem for gardeners is that rats are more astute than they are at knowing when pumpkins are ripe and harvest ready. Just as we may identify a pumpkiny smell around the stalk, so do rats. My advice is to check your pumpkins daily when they are close to full maturity and be prepared to harvest as soon as most of the criteria are met. Storage in a rat proof environment is then a necessity. Make sure there is nothing rats can climb up (e.g. wooden legs supporting a rack) to reach the pumpkins, which will be even more tempting to them as the pumpkins become sweeter.
Written by Robin Gale-Baker