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Tips for picking the perfect pumpkin

By Allison Bench

It’s a quintessential part of the autumn season: the pumpkin. Not only do Canadians love to eat pumpkin during the harvest season—in pies and baking, savoury soups and roasted seeds—but at Halloween, many look forward to the art of pumpkin carving.

In Alberta, there are pumpkin farms and patches located all around the province where you can go and find the perfect gourd. But what should you be looking for as you stroll through the rows of orange orbs? We’ve got you covered with these pumpkin tips directly from some Alberta farms—plus some tips for gardeners wondering when the best time is to harvest.

What to look for

First off, make sure you plan your pumpkin picking appropriately: they need to be harvested before the first frost and will rot quickly if exposed to freezing temperatures. Once a pumpkin catches your eye, you should give it a good check over before deciding it’s the one. You’re looking for one with a solid orange colour that feels firm to the touch all over, with no soft spots. “Look for a pumpkin that has a nice hard shell with a good stem,” says Kate de Windt with Somerset Farms near Edmonton. “Always carry your pumpkins from the bottom so that you don’t pop the stem off before Halloween.”

Keep your pumpkin fresh

Once you get your orange gourd home, you should take care to store it to keep it optimally fresh. Pumpkins do not do well directly on concrete as it can speed up rot, they do better on a wood or fabric surface, like a deck or mat. And while you should bring your pumpkins inside if frost is on the forecast (or, any time the night temperature will drop below 5 C), storing a pumpkin in cooler temperatures can help keep them fresh—so outside is ideal during mild fall weather.

Can you eat any pumpkin?

While technically you can, most pumpkins grown for carving tend to be bland or mildly bitter. “You can eat any pumpkin, but the best for eating are the squash varieties,” says Theo Slingerland with the Lethbridge Corn Maze, which also sells pumpkins in the fall. Slingerland recommends orange sugar pumpkins for those looking to dig in. “They have less fibre, and are sweeter,” he says.

When picking out a sugar pumpkin with the intention to eat, de Windt says follow the same advice as when picking for carving—but the weight of the pumpkin will also play a factor in taste. “A good eating pumpkin will be heavy for its size, which indicates it has lots of yummy flesh to puree and eat,” she says.

If you intend to roast your pumpkin seeds, a pumpkin that has been ripened longer will have bigger, fuller seeds inside.

What are some pumpkin growing and harvesting tips for home gardeners?

You can start your pumpkins indoors before the soil warms up, and then get the plants into the ground outdoors once the risk of frost is completely gone; in Alberta that’s usually late May or early June.

Slingerland recommends a high-compost, low nitrogen soil and careful watering. “Water frequently (at first); once the pumpkins are ripening and are at least half orange reduce the watering, as overwatering will crack or split the pumpkins.”

When it’s time to harvest, make sure to gather your pumpkins before the first frost. “Ideally, you want to pick your pumpkins when their skin has hardened and it has changed to a deep dark orange colour,” says de Windt, who adds a way to tell if your gourd is ready is that you should not be able to pierce through the skin when you push on it with your fingernails. “However, if frost is expected you should clip your pumpkins off the vine and store them indoors in a warm sunny location, so that they can change colour and ripen fully. This process is called curing.” Once they’re ripe, they can be moved to a cooler spot.

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