How to Pick the Perfect Pumpkin

5 min read|Last updated at: October 09, 2022

With their bright color and rotund shape, pumpkins are a popular element in seasonal décor and fall-inspired recipes, their distinct, savory flavor making them ideal for pies, muffins and other sweets. If you have seen pumpkins displayed in supermarkets or at fairs, then you will know that they come in an impressive cornucopia of colors and textures – some of the more unusual varieties feature bumps on their skin or come in elongated shapes. A favorite fixture for gardeners of all ages, these whimsical gourds evoke a nostalgic sense of autumnal days filled with vibrant foliage and crisp air. Whether you are growing your own pumpkins or visiting a pumpkin farm, it is important to select a pumpkin that will last through October. 

How to Pick the Perfect Pumpkin | Vego Garden

Planting your Own Pumpkins

The word pumpkin is derived from the Greek word “peopen”, which translates to “large melon.” Native to the Americas, pumpkins were once a popular source of food for the American colonists, who would remove the top and fill the inside with a mixture of honey, milk, and spice before baking it. This is believed to have been the origin of the pumpkin pie. There are many types of pumpkins, including pie pumpkins, giant pumpkins, and jack-o-lantern varieties. Though some are suitable for eating, others are mainly used for decorative purposes.

It can be a fun experience growing your own pumpkins. Raised garden beds are recommended because they provide optimal drainage properties that will ensure healthy roots and maintain the soil temperature, allowing you to extend the growing season. As pumpkin vines tend to spread rapidly, ensure that you have ample space. For those with limited space, consider growing compact or miniature varieties in raised beds, such as Cherokee Bush and Small Sugar, which can be supported by trellises. Pumpkins tolerate hot weather well, so the ideal time to plant them is early June. Since they require a long growing season, taking between 80 – 120 days to mature, some gardeners choose to grow them indoors before transplanting them outside. 

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Pumpkins are usually grown on a mound or hill to allow the soil to warm up more quickly.  Before planting, soak your seeds in water for about six hours if you want to promote faster germination. The ideal soil for pumpkins is well-drained and rich in organic matter. Space your plants apart depending on their specifications, usually at a distance of 2 – 5 ft apart. 

Due to their high water content, pumpkins require a lot of water. Apply about an inch of water once a week, making sure to avoid spraying the leaves. Add a layer of mulch to keep the soil moist and improve water retention. Though pumpkins are susceptible to a number of pests, including cucumber beetles, squash-vine borers, and aphids, most are manageable. Planting companion plants such as onions can help deter pests. Pumpkins are ready to be harvested when they are fully colored and the rinds have hardened. To harvest, select a sharp garden shears or knife and cut the pumpkin 3 – 4 inches above the stem. 

How to Pick the Perfect Pumpkin | Vego Garden

Tips for Selecting a Pumpkin for Carving

Choose an appropriate size

An extremely large pumpkin may be appealing, especially for kids, but they are harder to carry home and carve. Conversely, miniature pumpkins can also be difficult to carve. They can also pose health hazards by increasing the risk of getting cut with a carving knife. Look for a medium-sized pumpkin that can be lifted without difficulty and easily brought home. 

Look for Green Stems 

It can be easy to disregard the stem but it is important to check that the stem is firm and secure. Look for stems that are dark green and have a firm texture. Stems that appear dry and shriveled indicate that the pumpkin has been stored for a long time and is less fresh. Although it is convenient to pick up pumpkins by the stem, you should avoid picking them up that way, as it can break off from overhandling, causing water loss and exposing them to pests and disease. 

Avoid pumpkins with thick walls

Picking a pumpkin is similar to picking watermelon – the rind should feel hollow and not too hard. A thick stem is often an indication of thick walls. A pumpkin with thick walls is not conducive to carving, as the walls can block out light and conceal intricate carving details. Knock on a pumpkin several times and listen for a hollow, echoing sound. If the pumpkin feels disproportionately heavy or does not sound hollow, then it is likely that it has thick walls. 

Weird and interesting pumpkins are great for decorating 

In addition to the traditional orange pumpkins, pumpkins can also come in odd varieties that feature rustic rinds and unusual growths. These pumpkins make for spooky and intriguing Halloween decorations, adding a Gothic atmosphere to your surroundings. The bumps and scabs are not a result of disease, but rather a result of genetic engineering. 

How to Pick the Perfect Pumpkin | Vego Garden

Tips for Selecting a Pumpkin for Cooking 

Those labeled as sugar or pie pumpkins are better suited for eating than field pumpkins, as they tend to be smaller and sweeter. Still edible, carving pumpkins are less palatable due to their stringy and watery flesh. The rules outlined above are still applicable, but there will also be specifics to consider, depending on the intended use. 

  • Best pumpkins for pie: Pumpkins best suited for pies are heirloom cultivars that consist of dense, smooth-textured, sugary flesh. Some varieties include the vibrantly orange Cinderella Pumpkins, the whimsical Rouge Vif d'Etampes, and the classical New England Pie Pumpkin. 
  • Best pumpkins for roasting: Butternut pumpkins, also known as butternut squash, are popular for roasting. Oblong in shape with a pale white color, they possess denser, dryer flesh, making them a versatile addition to soups and other cooked pumpkin dishes. 
  • Best pumpkins for soup: Porcelain Doll is a pumpkin featuring a pale pink rind that is great for decorating as well as for soups, lending a creamy texture when cooked or pureed. The Fairytale Pumpkin, a squat pumpkin with deeply defined ridges, is also ideal for desserts and soups.

Is a squash considered a pumpkin?

The terms squash, gourd, and pumpkin have often been used interchangeably. Though they are all part of the Cucurbitaceae family, there are a few minor differences that set them apart. A pumpkin is both a gourd and squash, but not all gourds are squashes. Squashes are generally divided into summer squashes and winter squashes, depending on their growing season. Gourds are inedible and mainly used for decorative or ornamental purposes while squashes are grown for consumption. There is no botanical distinction between pumpkins and squashes, except that pumpkins are rounder and retain a more classical appearance. In general, pumpkins have a stem that is more jagged and stiff while squashes have less prickly stems.  

How to Pick the Perfect Pumpkin | Vego Garden

Where can you buy pumpkins?

Pumpkins can be found at a multitude of locations, including supermarkets, home improvement stores, and garden centers. Searching on the internet will yield more detailed information relevant to your location. If you’re looking for specialty varieties, these can be found at pumpkin patches, fairs, or farmer’s markets. Since they are seasonal crops, you will only likely find them during late summer and autumn, so make sure to take advantage of the opportunity while they are still available.