Pumpkins are a fun and easy crop to grow in a home vegetable garden with the harvest season beginning in late summer. The colorful fruits can be used as Jack-o’-lanterns, autumn decor, or stored for cooking and baking. However you use your homegrown pumpkins, it’s important to harvest the fruits when they’re fully mature. Why? Underripe or overripe pumpkins are prone to rotting. Below you’ll learn four signs to help you to decide when to harvest pumpkins from your garden.
Why it’s important to harvest pumpkins at the right time
Recognizing when a pumpkin is ripe is an important skill for gardeners to learn, particularly those who wish to store their pumpkins for cold season cooking and baking. Who doesn’t love pumpkin pie? A pumpkin harvested immature generally rots within a few weeks, if not sooner. On the other hand, pumpkins left in the garden too long, especially if they’re exposed to frost and cold temperatures, also rot. It’s important to harvest pumpkins when they’re mature, but also before cold weather arrives.
How long do pumpkins take to grow?
Pumpkins are a warm season vegetable related to cucumbers and melons and need a long growing season to go from seed to harvest. Each variety has a ‘days to maturity’ listed on the seed packet that tells you how much time it needs to go from seed to harvest.
To encourage healthy plants and plenty of pumpkins, start out right by amending the soil with compost or aged manure. Pumpkin plants are heavy feeders and need a steady feed of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. It’s a good idea to add a slow release organic vegetable fertilizer to the soil when you sow pumpkin seeds or transplant seedlings. Also be sure to plant in a site with at least 8 hours of direct sunlight each day. Plant once the last frost date has passed and the weather has warmed.
As summer progresses, supply regular moisture to the plants and encourage pollinators like bees to visit the male flowers and female flowers by adding companion plants well suited to squash.
When to harvest pumpkins
Most pumpkins are harvested in September or October, depending on your location. There are 4 signs to look for to determine if a pumpkin is ripe and ready to harvest.
1) When to harvest pumpkins based on days to maturity
As noted above, each pumpkin variety has a specific ‘days to maturity’ listed on the seed packet or in the seed catalog. This is the time required to go from seed to harvest. Short season gardeners should select varieties that will have time to mature before the hard frosts arrive in autumn. Most pumpkins need somewhere between 90 to 120 days to mature, although giant pumpkins need up to 150 days to size up.
2) When to harvest pumpkins based on color
Fruit color is the most obvious sign that pumpkins are ready to harvest. When the fruits have turned their mature color of orange, white, red, blue, or yellow it’s time to take a closer look to gauge ripeness. The colour should be uniform with the entire fruit showing the mature color. Refer to the photo on the seed packet or in the seed catalog if you’re not sure about mature color. The exception to this is if a frost or freezing temperatures are forecast. In this case, harvest part-ripe pumpkins and bring them into a warm, well-ventilated space like a shed, garage, or greenhouse. You’ll find more details on early harvesting below.
3) When to harvest pumpkins based on the rind
As pumpkins and winter squash, mature, the skin hardens and becomes shiny. This is where the fingernail test comes in handy. The rind of a fully mature pumpkin is very hard to pierce with a fingernail. Choose a spot on the back of the pumpkin (where a small mark won’t visible if it’s to be displayed) and push your fingernail against the rind. If it’s very firm, it’s likely ripe and ready to harvest. If your fingernail sinks into the flesh, it’s underripe.
4) When to harvest pumpkins based on stem and sound
Sound? Yes sound! A fully ripe pumpkin has a hollow sound when you thump it with your hand. You should also examine the stem. The stem of pumpkins turns from green to brown as the fruits mature. A woody stem is a sign that it’s ready to pick.
When to harvest pumpkins early
Pumpkins can tolerate a light frost, but if the temperature dips too low, in the 28 F (-2 C) range, damage can occur. Freeze damaged pumpkins are prone to rot. You can cover part-ripe pumpkins with row covers or even blankets if a frost is forecast. Remove any covers the following morning to encourage the sun to speed up ripening.
Sometimes, however, you may need to harvest pumpkins early. It could be because of the above mentioned danger of frost or freeze, but it could also be due to insects or disease damage. Keep an eye out for pests like squash bugs, cucumber beetles, as well as fungal and bacterial diseases. Early use of row covers or insect netting can reduce insect damage. If the plants are severely affected by pests or diseases, they may turn brown and dry up and the fruits may stop growing. In areas where pest or disease pressure is high, it’s best to harvest pumpkins as soon as they have matured. They can then be cured and stored until you’re ready to display them as part of your autumn or Halloween decor or use them in the kitchen.
How to turn green pumpkins orange
As noted above, it’s not unusual to have to harvest pumpkins early, and often before they’re fully ripe. It’s not ideal, but that doesn’t mean your still-green or half-green pumpkins won’t turn orange. If a freeze is in the forecast, it’s better to harvest pumpkins than leave them in the garden where they may be damaged and prone to rotting.
After you’ve cut a green pumpkin from the stem, bring it indoors to protect it from cold temperatures. It should be a warm, well-ventilated space like a shed, garage, greenhouse, root cellar, or inside your home. Once the weather improves, place the pumpkin outdoors in full sun. Rotate it every few days so all the green parts can mature to orange. If there are still very immature fruits on your pumpkin plants at the end of the growing season, these can be harvested and eaten in the same way as summer squash.
When to harvest pumpkins with small fruits
Small, or miniature, pumpkins are those that produce fruits that weigh under four pounds. The plants are incredibly vigorous and often yield up to a dozen small fruits each. They still need a long growing season with most fruits ready to harvest around 90 to 105 days from seeding. Like large pumpkins, miniature varieties are ready to pick when the fruits have reached their mature color and the rind is hard.
When to harvest giant pumpkins
Growing giant pumpkins is a fun activity for the whole family, although you will need plenty of space for the vigorous vines. Dill’s Atlantic Giant is a classic variety that yields 400 pound pumpkins when grown with full sun, consistent moisture, and rich soil. With a little extra TLC, this variety has been known to produce 1,800 pound plus fruits! The massive pumpkins are typically harvested before the first hard frost, in late September or early October. The rind should be hard and fully colored. Unlike smaller pumpkins, giant pumpkins have very thick stems that are hard to cut. Use a pruning saw or garden loppers to carefully remove fruits from their vines.
When to harvest white pumpkins
It’s easy to tell when orange pumpkins have reached their mature color, but it’s a bit trickier with white, red, or even blue pumpkins. I love growing heirloom and speciality pumpkins in my garden and have learned to keep an eye on the fruits as the ‘days to maturity’ date nears. White pumpkins, like Polar Bear, should be clipped from the vines as soon as the vines begin to die and they’ve reached their mature color. If white pumpkins are left on the plants too long, the white rind can turn yellowish or beige. For the same reason, white pumpkins should be cured indoors and out of direct light. Place them in a well-ventilated spot to cure for 7 to 10 days.
How to harvest pumpkins
It’s best to harvest pumpkins on a sunny, dry day. I try to stay out of the vegetable garden when the weather is damp, as wet leaves can spread disease. After spending months growing pumpkins, you’ll want to make sure you harvest them properly so grab a pair of pruning shears or a sharp knife. I also wear gloves as pumpkin leaves, stems, and vines can be prickly. Don’t try and tug or pull pumpkins from the vine as this can damage fruits still maturing on the plant. Or it can cause the stem of your pumpkin to break off. A pumpkin without a stem, also called a handle, typically does not store well.
Using your hand pruners or knife, cut the pumpkin from the vine, leaving a good-sized stem. I like to cut up to 6 inches of stem, which can be trimmed later if necessary. Once harvested, it’s time to cure the fruits.
How to cure pumpkins
Curing is a process that hardens the skins of pumpkins, reducing rot and allowing them to last for months in storage. It’s also easy to do. I generally sun cure my pumpkins by clipping them from the plants and leaving the fruits to cure in the garden for 7 to 10 days. Don’t pile up the fruits, instead space them out so air can circulate around each one. Also pay attention to the weather. A rain shower isn’t an issue, but cold temperatures and frost are problematic. If the temperatures drop during the curing process, cover the fruits with a row cover or move them to a garage, shed, or other spot indoors. The ideal temperature for curing pumpkins is 80 to 85 F (27 to 29 C). In cooler temperatures, curing may take a few extra days.
How to store pumpkins
Fully cured pumpkins can be stored for 3 to 4 months. The ideal storage site offers a temperature range of 50 to 60 F (10 to 15 C) and a humidity of 50 to 70%. I’ve found a cool basement or spare bedroom to be a good spot for storage. Line them up in a single layer on the floor or on shelving, making sure they don’t touch. Check them every week or two to make sure none have begun to rot.
For more information on growing pumpkins and related vegetables, be sure to check out these in-depth articles:
- How to grow miniature pumpkins
- When to plant pumpkin seeds or transplants
- How to pollinate pumpkins, squash, and cucumbers
- How to get rid of squash bugs
- What to do about powdery mildew on squash plants