Pumpkins

Orange has long been the color of choice for pumpkins, but a variety of colors are increasingly available.

Colorful gourds are popular fall decorations and pumpkins have several uses. But no matter if you're growing or purchasing pumpkins or gourds for display, decoration, cooking or storage, choosing the best specimens and storing them properly is key.

Select carefully

It's important for good storage and longer-life in display specimens to harvest pumpkins and gourds that are fully mature but before a hard freeze. Light frost, approximately 28 to 32 degrees, is OK. It will cause the vines to die back but not damage the fruits. Hard frost, in the mid to low 20s, will damage pumpkins, reducing their storage potential and cause gourds to rot before they can be dried.

When to harvest? Pumpkins should have hard shells with a shiny surface that can't be punctured by a fingernail. Also check for firm, bright green stems. Weak stems often indicate a plant that had a foliar disease, which could make the pumpkin more prone to rotting. Stems cut too close to the pumpkin will also cause it to decay quicker.

Mature gourds are a dull color and have stems or vines that are totally dry. Do not test gourds with a fingernail, as this may puncture or dent the skin and reduce the quality of the gourd.

Even if you didn't grow it yourself, you can use these techniques to choose good specimens at the farmers market or roadside stand.

Once the shell and stem have passed quality tests, pumpkin and gourd choices are purely personal. Misshapen ones are as safe to eat or handle as uniform ones. Blue pumpkins, white pumpkins, small pie pumpkins and other less common varieties are becoming increasingly popular.

If you plan to use the pumpkin for cooking, it's best to select a pie pumpkin or sweet pumpkin. They are usually smaller than jack-o-lantern types with sweeter, less watery flesh. But if you really want to use a jack-o-lantern type pumpkin for cooking you certainly can and should have fairly good results. Just don't plan to cook with a pumpkin after it has been carved and displayed -- these should be discarded.

Cleaning and storage

After choosing pumpkins and gourds, there are many options on how to use them. Besides using them for cooking or other purposes, pumpkins and gourds may be carved, dried, polished or decorated. However, they must be stored properly so they don't rot.

Washing and disinfecting pumpkins and gourds is not required, but it often helps them keep longer. Wipe down or wash the exterior with a diluted bleach solution, about 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water. This removes surface bacteria and fungal spores.

After cleaning them, store the pumpkins or gourds in cool -- but not freezing -- dry location where there is some air circulation, such as a basement or garage. Keep them off the ground to prevent moisture from accumulating around them and causing them to rot. To do so, many growers store pumpkins or gourds on straw. Other options for homeowners include putting them inside a cardboard box, on an upturned flowerpot or on top of a couple bricks.

Pumpkins can easily be stored for 2 to 3 months, so its no problem if you harvest in early October. If they haven't gotten frosted and are cured properly, pumpkins destined for Halloween carving will store just fine.

Polishing decorative pumpkins is another popular preparation for display. Acrylic liquid floor wax and polyurethane spray work well and make the pumpkins shiny. Be sure not to eat pumpkins that have been treated in this way.

Drying gourds

To dry gourds, leave them in an area that has good ventilation and is warm and dry, such as a garage or attic. Gourds should not touch each other while drying. They will shrink as they dry. Different sized gourds require different amounts of time to dry, but expect to wait several months. One way to tell if a gourd is dry is by shaking it. If the seeds can be heard rattling inside, it likely has dried.

A layer of mold may develop on the gourd's skin during the drying process. Leave the mold until the gourd is completely dry; it usually will wash off then or can be rubbed off with a rough cloth or fine sandpaper. Dried gourds, if kept dry, will last indefinitely.

Sarah Browning is an extension educator with Nebraska Extension. To ask a question or reach her, call 402-441-7180 or write to her at sarah.browning@unl.edu or 444 Cherrycreek Road, Lincoln, NE 68528.

 

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