If you’ve taken the leap to grow your own pumpkins, congratulations! You’re halfway there. Getting them to grow is only part of the journey. Come fall, you want to be able to harvest healthy, bulbous, colorful pumpkins that can add warmth to your front porch or light up a room.
Knowing how to harvest pumpkins is essential to ensuring a happy Halloween. Keep reading to learn best practices for how to harvest pumpkins, including how to care for them so that they last all season.
When to Harvest Pumpkins
Timing is critical when harvesting any crop, including harvesting pumpkins. This can be the difference between a firm, orange pumpkin and a mushy, jaundiced sad Jack-O-Lantern.
You will want to harvest pumpkins before the first frost. Once the temperature drops, pumpkins left outside to freeze will die. Since pumpkins usually take about three-to-four months to reach the harvest stage once planted, you can work backwards to determine when to start growing, ideally late spring/early summer.
Fall has notoriously unpredictable weather. Depending on where you live, the first frost could come as early as mid-September. For warmer climates, like Florida, first frost usually doesn’t happen until November or December.
Sometimes, you can wait until the first frost to pick pumpkins. The frost will kill the vines, making it easier to pick them.
If you’re having a cold, rainy fall, it’s smart to pick pumpkins sooner as that weather can exacerbate frost conditions. Your garden may be hit with unusually heavy rains around the harvest. In those instances, you can put straw or cardboard under pumpkins to protect them from rot.
Where to Grow Pumpkins
We have extensive articles focused on creating ideal growing conditions for pumpkins. A key thing to remember is that pumpkin vines need lots of room to stretch. They can’t grow in pots, unless you’re cool with vines crawling across your floor. Don’t plant pumpkins too close together, as that can hinder their growth and make it difficult to harvest them when the time comes.
What to Look For when Harvesting Pumpkins
Determining what a ripe pumpkin looks like will help you know how to harvest pumpkins.
Look for pumpkins that are a full, vibrant color. Depending on the variety, that can be orange, white, or gray. You want colors that pop. Pumpkins that are green or yellow, or somewhere in between, are not yet ready.
Ripe pumpkins have hard, shiny rinds. Feel each pumpkin to determine how firm they are; knock on them and listen for a hollow thump. A good test is to press your finger on the rind. If it indents, then it’s not ready for picking.
Stem and Vine
When deciding how to harvest pumpkins, observe the stem: is it thick and firm? Is it starting to shrivel off the vine? Those are clear signs the pumpkin is ready to break off the vine and be picked.
The vine will also tell you when it’s time to pick. The leaves on the vine will begin browning and dying off. Its job is done for the season, and its fruit is ready to be picked.
How to Harvest Pumpkins from the Vine
Harvesting pumpkins involves removing them from the vine and bringing them into a cool, dry place.
While it’s tempting to just yank the pumpkin off the withering vine, stems that are broken off will rot faster. You’ll be left with potentially sharp, uneven edges that could injure someone.
The best practice is to cut the pumpkin off the vine with a knife. Make a clean slice through the stem, for a smooth, even surface. If you feel comfortable dragging your thumb across the top of cut stem, then you’ve done it correctly.
Leave about three to six inches of stem attached. If you cut off the entire stem, that will leave the pumpkin open to rotting faster. The stem brings water and nutrients to the pumpkin during growing, and there are still residual nutrients that the pumpkin can benefit from post-cutting.
When you are harvesting pumpkins, make sure to wear gardening gloves. Pumpkin vines are covered in pricks. Those small needles allow it to attach to the ground or fences, so the pumpkins have the support to grow. You don’t want to get cut up when picking pumpkins. You can purchase gardening gloves from a hardware store.
One hand should hold the vine while the other cuts the stem. This will allow for the vine to remain steady. The pumpkin will be able to rest on the ground during cutting undisturbed.
Depending on how large the pumpkin is, lift with your legs when picking it up. Bending your back as you pick it up can cause unnecessary strain and physical injury to your back. Nobody needs to spoil their fall with a pulled muscle.
Do not pick up the pumpkin by the stem. The stem is not meant to support its weight, and you could cause the stem to break off.
Once picked, you can place it in a wheelbarrow and cart it from the garden. This is helpful if you’re picking multiple pumpkins at once. Unless you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger in his Pumping Iron era, it’s unlikely you can carry a bunch of pumpkin in your arms.
Caring for Harvested Pumpkins
Now that you’ve harvested your pumpkins, you want them to last for a while. There are a few things you can do to extend their shelf life (or porch life).
First things first: after you pick pumpkins, wash them off thoroughly. You can use plain water, or you can even add in a dash of chlorine to be extra sanitary. You will want to remove all of the dirt from the pumpkin patch. Plant diseases can linger in dirt, making it a risk to your pumpkin.
Make sure to wipe off your pumpkin after washing and get it nice and dry. Letting the pumpkin stay wet could lead to molding.
To go the extra mile, you will want to cure your pumpkins. Cured pumpkins can keep up to three months, lasting much longer than uncured pumpkins. If you harvest pumpkins earlier in the season, then curing ensures they will survive through autumn.
To cure a pumpkin, set them in a warm spot for ten days, ideally over eighty degrees. If you harvest in late summer, keeping them in your garage or a non-air conditioned room should suffice. The warmth will harden the shell, patch up wounded areas, and brighten the color.
Should there be a cold snap during the curing process that drops the temperature, cover your pumpkins will blankets to keep them warm.
Don’t put your pumpkins in the sun to cure. The storage room should be dark and warm. Sunlight can mess with the coloring.
When storing pumpkins, try not to have the rinds touch. It’s not mandatory, but suggested. Pumpkins that are too close together could create chemical reactions that cause accelerated aging and decay.
After your pumpkins have been cured, you can store them in cool, dry, dark places until they’re ready to come out.
And That’s How to Harvest Pumpkins!
Pumpkins are one of the easier crops to harvest. Taking these extra steps we’ve laid out above will let you make the most of your harvest and come away with pumpkins that are full of color and life.
Minnetonka Orchards is dedicated to helping gardeners, beginners and advanced alike, produce plentiful, delicious crops. Hop over to our pumpkin hub to discover best practices for planting pumpkin seeds.