How to Preserve Pumpkins Without Harming Wildlife
Why spend so much time carving jack-o-lanterns and arranging Halloween displays, only for the gourds to start decaying a few days later? Learn how to keep pumpkins from rotting—and keep your autumnal exhibits looking spooky for weeks.
The scariest sight on your porch this Halloween might not be the ghoulish grin on your jack-o’-lantern’s face, but rather the rot, mold, and mildew—and the creepy crawlers—that inevitably invade it. Like most produce, whole pumpkins decompose naturally with exposure to air, water, and pests, and the orifices in carved pumpkins cause them to decay even more quickly.
This decay is exacerbated by weather, which can contribute greatly to deterioration. In fact, even the experts at The Great Jack o’ Lantern Blaze, a seasonal extravaganza of Halloween in New York’s Hudson Valley and on Long Island, see their creations fall victim to Mother Nature. “In hot weather, we might be replacing pumpkins every couple days,” says Karen Clark, who works with the carving team that creates the thousands of jack-o’-lanterns on display each year at the Blaze festival. “If it’s colder, they could last a week,” she adds.
While the folks at the Blaze don’t employ any special preservation techniques, they know the first step to keeping a jack-o’-lantern looking good is choosing the right pumpkin. “Look for one that is without bruises, is evenly colored, and isn’t moldy or rotten,” says Clark. “Check the bottom for rot and tap gently to hear a firm, hollow sound,” she adds.
Fortunately, anyone who is eager to make his or her porch decoration last through Thanksgiving, or even just till the neighborhood trick-or-treaters arrive, has the means to do so already at home.
Keeping Critters Safe
Top of mind, of course, should be ensuring that curious critters are safe from whatever pumpkin preservation method you choose. Many animals enjoy a gourd snack, including squirrels, which “are quite attracted to the fruitiness and soft interior” of pumpkins, according to veterinarian Sara Ochoa. Luckily for folks looking to dissuade critters from snacking on their decor, many creatures are repelled by strong odors and certain textures. Our methods for how to preserve a pumpkin keep critter safety at the forefront, while eschewing less effective and potentially more harmful methods.
Working Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour
Skill Level: Beginner
Estimated Cost: $10 or less
Before You Begin
There’s no way around it: Preserving a pumpkin is a messy endeavor. Spread out newspapers or other protective material so that you don’t get goop all over the kitchen counter or dining room table. You can don rubber gloves if you want to keep your hands clean. You might want to encourage the kids to watch rather than participate in pumpkin preservation, as there’s risk for hot sauce in the eyes and other unpleasantries.
“The lighter the pumpkin’s skin, the softer the pumpkin will be, making it easier to carve. However, be aware that lighter-skinned pumpkins may not last as long post-carving.”
—Karen Clark, Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze pumpkin team
How to Preserve a Carved Pumpkin
If you plan to carve your pumpkin, it’s important to select a pumpkin with the right characteristics. “The lighter the pumpkin’s skin, the softer the pumpkin will be, making it easier to carve,” according to Clark. “However,” she adds, “be aware that lighter-skinned pumpkins may not last as long post-carving.” Clark offers one more tip for selecting a good carving pumpkin: “Choose a pumpkin with a smooth, flat face, and with few shallow ridges.”
Once you’ve selected your pumpkin and are ready to start your artistry, the first step is to get out the gunk. “We thoroughly scrape out the pumpkin, which helps make it more resistant to mold and rot,” says Clark. “We also cut the ‘hole’ for scooping in the bottom of the pumpkin instead of the top, which helps preserve the structural integrity of the pumpkin,” she adds.
The Blaze folks know that a pile of pulp in a carved pumpkin is an invitation for fungi, bacteria, fruit flies, and other pests to enter through the openings and feed on your jack-o’-lantern.
Before you set about preserving the carved pumpkin, take these steps:
- Scrape the pumpkin walls and base with a spoon to loosen the fibers and seeds.
- Turn the pumpkin upside down over a large bowl and dump out the contents.
- If you have a compost bin, consider adding the pumpkin pulp to your pile — it makes excellent food for your garden later. FMCP’s IM4000 Dual Chamber Tumbling Composter, a top performer in our researched guide to the best compost tumblers, is roomy enough to accommodate pulp, seeds, and eventually the whole pumpkin.
Method 1: Coat the pumpkin in a spicy oil.
A spicy coating of vegetable oil can give your jack-o’-lantern a glossy shine and help it resist decay. The oil will help preserve the gourd, and mixing it with a hot sauce (like Tabasco or Frank’s) makes it unappealing to wildlife that are put off by the scent of the hot sauce, according to veterinarian Luana Factor.
- Mix vegetable oil and hot sauce together.
- Apply to all exterior surfaces with a rag, being sure to thoroughly coat the cut edges
- Give the inside a good coating, too.
Method 2: Apply a DIY anti-fungal spray to the gourd.
This preservation method not only repels bugs and critters, but it also adds a fresh scent to your porch. You’ll probably need to repeat this method each evening, as the scent will fade.
- Mix 1 tablespoon of peppermint castile soap and 4 cups of plain water in a plastic spray bottle.
- Dry the outside of the pumpkin with an old rag.
- Shake the spray bottle vigorously.
- Spray the inside and outside of the pumpkin liberally.
How to Preserve Uncarved Pumpkins
Keeping a whole pumpkin shipshape is even easier than preserving a cut pumpkin. And while both methods are a bit messy, you’ll likely get several months out of your pumpkin. Again, hot sauce is a fall decorator’s best friend because it keeps squirrels and other critters from eating your pumpkins without harming the animals.
Method 1: Rub a mix of petroleum jelly and hot sauce on the pumpkin.
This method is a bit messy, but it’s effective. The petroleum jelly will aid in preservation, and the hot sauce will ward off curious animals. (Petroleum jelly isn’t fatal for animals, but if animals ingest a lot of it you can expect a plethora of unpleasant droppings all over your lawn.) From an aesthetic perspective, you’ll get a pretty, shiny pumpkin with an enhanced orange-red color.
- Mix petroleum jelly (like Vaseline) with hot sauce
- Spread a thin coat over the pumpkin’s surface, taking care to coat the entire pumpkin. You can use a spatula or knife to spread the mixture but, honestly, your hands work best.
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Method 2: Soak the pumpkin in a vinegar solution.
Another excellent way of preserving pumpkins is to pickle them! Critters do not like vinegar’s strong scent, and will stay away from your gourds.
- Fill a tub or other container with a mixture of 10 parts water to 1 part vinegar. This ratio is important because too strong an application of vinegar can damage the gourd’s skin.
- Fully immerse your pumpkins and other gourds and allow them to soak for 30 minutes.
- Pull them out, allow them to air dry and put them on display!
In autumn, many of us like to decorate with fall’s favorite vegetable, and now you are armed with the tips and information that will ensure your display looks fresh for as long as possible. You can also take comfort in the fact that your preservation methods will deter wildlife safely. Pesky squirrels and other critters will have to enjoy their gourd banquet on someone else’s front porch!