Your Guide To How Long Pumpkins Last, Because No One Has Time For Rotten Pumpkin Funk
Want to make sure your pumpkins last all fall? Here's the deal.
'Tis the season — of pumpkins! Pumpkin-spice everything now lines the shelves at every supermarket and big box store. Pumpkin recipes clog your Pinterest feed. And kids everywhere are already asking when it's time to trot out the time-honored tradition of the humble jack-o-lantern. But that might lead you, the one who'll be responsible for the upkeep of said creation, to wonder, How long do carved pumpkins last? Well, that depends on numerous factors, including pumpkin prep and where you store your jack-o-lantern once it’s carved.
Because what happens when you leave a carved pumpkin out too long? That's a fate you want to avoid at all possible costs. I still remember the smell. It was early October in Chicago. The garden apartment didn’t have a patio, so we sat the pumpkins we’d bought and carved the week before on our dining table. That should have been fine — except October in Chicago is different than October in most U.S. cities. It can get bitterly cold. And what do you do when it gets bitterly cold? Crank up the heat, obviously. In full fall mode, we took the family to a festival with a petting zoo, cider tasting, and, yes, more pumpkins to buy. We were gone all day. All.Day.
By the time we dragged ourselves and the kids back through the front door, we were chilled to the bone, cheeks and noses bright red from the cold. Inside, the apartment was nice, cozy, and warm... but it smelled awful. We checked all the usual places but couldn’t find the culprit. So, we grumped our way through dinner prep, asking the middle kid to clear the table and set it. And then it happened. She picked up that first pumpkin, carved like a goofy Frankenstein's monster, and the bottom dropped out in a gooey, horrifyingly smelly mess. That truly putrid odor came from not one but all three of our prized pumpkins rotting on the table in the indoor heat.
Don’t make that mistake. Know how to care for your pumpkins, or you’ll be stuck trying to cover that gross half-cooked pumpkin smell well into the winter holidays.
So, how long do pumpkins last when uncarved?
Most gardeners or food storage experts will tell you that an uncarved pumpkin could last anywhere from two or three months in perfect conditions. There are many variables to consider in that equation, though.
Sometimes we think of pumpkins more as decorations than as produce. That is, of course, your first mistake. At the end of the day, whether a pumpkin is carved or uncarved, how long it lasts will greatly depend on where you live, where you place it, and what conditions are like in that area. Pumpkins are part of the winter squash family, which means they do best in cooler, darker/shadier conditions.
Even if you check in with experts, you’ll have a hard time finding solid answers. Michelle Carlbert, for instance, is considered the "Queen of Halloween." With an obsession for all things fall and Halloween, Carlbert started her own Facebook page with a substantial following and wrote a book, Halloween 365, about decorating for Halloween throughout the year. The queen remains as frustrated with pumpkins as most fall décor fans.
“My experience with this is that uncut pumpkins definitely last longer. How much longer is hard to say as it depends on where you live,” Carlbert says. “Those of us who live in the south with brutal-hot temperatures that last well into October, we know that pumpkins don’t last outside at all.”
How long will carved pumpkins last, and when is the best time to carve them?
Like uncarved pumpkins, this will depend entirely on your location. In OK conditions, a pumpkin will last three to five days, while in perfect conditions, your pumpkin could last a week or two. Your best bet is always to delay carving your pumpkin for as long as possible. You might want to consider adding it to your list of things to do after school on October 30 or even right before trick or treating on October 31.
Pumpkin rotting? You’re clearly not alone; the Queen of Halloween herself has experience with premature pumpkin rot. “I had some horrible experiences trying to carve pumpkins when I was growing up in Los Angeles,” shares Carlbert. “I once tried to enter a pumpkin carving contest at school and brought it in a few days early to put on display in the classroom. Other pumpkins were set out, too. But for whatever reason, mine was completely rotten and had to be thrown out before the contest. I didn’t try to carve one for years after that tragedy but finally got brave enough to try again when I was in my 20s and throwing my own Halloween party. I tried to be smarter; I waited until only a couple of days beforehand and put the pumpkin into a cool, dark room. But no such luck. Not only did it rot, but this time it also leaked all over the floor. So gross!"
How can you make a pumpkin last longer?
OK. But it’s September, the grocery store has pumpkins out, and your kid wants one. How can you up your odds of making a pumpkin last? Other than praying to the autumn gods and sacrificing some ghost Peeps, there are a few things you can try.
Buy smaller pumpkins.
Just as smaller watermelons have the best insides, the same can be true for pumpkins. You might have noticed that mini pumpkin you were coerced into buying late last fall still looks pretty decent in the fruit bowl, right? Mini pumpkins can last anywhere from six to 12 months! Of course, you can very easily carve a mini pumpkin. If you want something a bit more substantial, though, the smaller pumpkins at the pumpkin patch will still last longer than the biggest ones.
Bathe your pumpkins.
When you first bring home that future jack-o-lantern, give it a bath in cool water. Keeping the water cool will keep you from accidentally cooking your pumpkin, and rinsing off your giant squash will get rid of any farm bacteria that you might have brought home.
Spray it down.
Giving your pumpkin a light spritz with vinegar or bleach (not both) will continue the cleaning process. Simply pat it dry afterward. A dry pumpkin is a happy pumpkin.
Look for optimal conditions.
Which is cooler: inside or out? Keep your pumpkins wherever the temperature is lowest. Also, keep your pumpkins somewhere shady. You already know that sunshine helps produce ripen. Rot is typically caused by a piece of produce that was allowed to overripen. Keep it dry, too. If you’re sitting it outside, avoid sitting it directly on concrete, which tends to hold moisture, and consider placing it on a top step, under an eave or awning, instead of somewhere more exposed to that Autumn rain and snow.
Wait to carve your pumpkin.
It’s been said multiple times already, but it’s worth repeating — wait until the latest possible date to carve your pumpkin.
Should you just stick with fake pumpkins?
This is a toughie. Many people worry that fake pumpkins contribute to our country’s waste problems (and, hey, they’re not wrong). They are, however, much easier to care for and, when stored properly, can last a very, very long time. Even Carlbert has a hard time choosing between fake or real pumpkins.
“This all depends on what you want from your pumpkin,” she says. “Do you want a simple decoration that will sit on your dining room table for a few weeks during October and maybe into November for Thanksgiving? Will it be surrounded by other natural elements? Then a real pumpkin (I suggest uncarved) is a beautiful option. [Or] do you want to decorate for fall starting in September (or even August)? Do you want to use pumpkins for fall and Halloween décor, then keep them around for your autumnal Thanksgiving table? Do you want to carve a Halloween pumpkin and then keep it year after year? Are you looking for decorations that you can put outside that can withstand heat, rain, wind, and maybe even snow? Then I highly recommend getting some fake pumpkins.”
Fake Pumpkin Tips
Stake ‘em down: Fake pumpkins are a lot lighter than the real deal. You’ll want to find a way to keep them from blowing off in those often fierce fall winds. Carlbert recommends staking them to the ground or using rocks/sand inside to make them heavier.
Light ‘em up: In case it’s not obvious, don’t use real candles in fake pumpkins. (Actually, don’t use real candles in real pumpkins, either.) “I’ve seen people put holes in the bottom and then run a string of lights into it,” Carlbert shares. “This works well if the lights are somewhat larger and there is a good amount of space between the bulbs. You could have pumpkins on the ground with a single bulb in each one. Personally, I’ve always just used battery-operated tea lights inside mine. I usually put in at least two or three tea lights as one is not bright enough for me. You can also use spotlights or a projector. I really like the projectors that have pumpkin faces and give the effect of a bunch of singing jack-o-lanterns.”
Store ‘em thoughtfully: If too much waste is a concern for you when using fake pumpkins, you’ll want to make sure you store them properly so they stay pretty from year to year. Carlbert suggests plastic storage bags. “You can also use storage bins, but I prefer the bags because trying to put round objects into a square bin tends to leave you with a lot of wasted unused space. But if you have other Halloween items to fit in and around the pumpkins, bins can be a great option.”