Knowing when to pick pumpkins for your autumn baking or decorating is both a tradition and an art. Fortunately, there are several clues that you can go by to make sure you’re harvesting a pumpkin at the very peak of ripeness.
These four clues are the signals for when to pick pumpkins:
- The pumpkin has fully developed the color expected for its type
- The pumpkin is the full size for its type
- The rind is hard and cannot be pierced by a fingernail
- The pumpkin plant’s leaves and stems are drying up and turning brown
In this post, you’ll learn more details about pumpkin ripeness and what to look for in terms of color, size, feel and environmental clues. You’ll also learn how to harvest a pumpkin correctly and prepare it for storage.
Let’s get started!
How to Tell If a Pumpkin is Ripe
Given that there are over 700 different types of pumpkins out there, it’s no surprise that there are no hard-and-fast rules that apply to when each pumpkin reaches the proper harvesting stage.
Most pumpkins take between 80 and 130 days to reach full maturity, with the smaller varieties ripening faster than the larger ones:
- Mini pumpkins usually take 80-100 days to reach maturity
- Small pumpkins typically take between 90-115 days
- Medium pumpkins are ready in about 90-100 days
- Large pumpkins should be ripe in roughly 90-120 days
- Giant pumpkins usually take 125+ days
Environmental factors, like weather and insect or disease damage, can have a big impact on how quickly your pumpkins ripen. And the care you give them, like watering and fertilizing, also affects the plant’s overall growth rate. Even on a single plant, individual fruits can ripen faster than others.
So determining when to harvest pumpkins really comes down to a case-by-case basis.
Let’s take a good look at each of these to help you learn when pumpkins are ready to harvest.
1. The Pumpkin’s Color
Pumpkins come in an array of colors from white to nearly-black to variegated orange and everything in between. Refer to your pumpkin’s seed packet or photos to find out the expected color for the variety.
Whatever the color your pumpkin is supposed to be, look for a vibrant, even coloring over the entire fruit.
Orange pumpkins like Mini, Pam, Autumn Gold, and Kratos should appear rich and uniform in their orange color. Multicolor or spotted varieties like Carnival, Sweet Dumpling, and Mixta should appear as expected according to the seed packet or plant guide for these types.
Many pumpkins start out a dark green and will change colors as they mature and ripen on the vine. This is one of my Jack O Lantern pumpkins in August, a few weeks after the flower was pollinated:
The green will eventually develop into an even, vibrant orange in color at maturity:
And here is a Jack Be Little, also in August. You’ll notice that it starts out yellow instead of green:
Eventually, the rind color will deepen to a rich orange:
No matter what shade your pumpkin is supposed to be, it should have a deep coloring over the entire fruit, with no patches of immature color.
2. The Pumpkin’s Size
Size also varies between pumpkin types and is another facet of figuring out when to pick pumpkins. Use the seed packet or plant tag to determine what size pumpkin to expect from your seeds or plants.
Here is a rough guide on the different pumpkin sizes:
- Mini pumpkins should be 3-4 inches in diameter and 2-3 inches high.
- Small pumpkins are 5-7 inches in diameter and 4-7 inches high.
- Medium pumpkins are about 8-14 inches in diameter and 10-15 inches high.
- Large pumpkins are usually 15-20 inches in diameter and 15-20 tall.
- Giant pumpkins are greater than 20 inches in diameter and height.
3. How the Rind Feels
The rind is your pumpkin’s protective shell, and it needs to be firm enough that once it’s picked it will continue to keep out pests and prevent diseases from entering the pumpkin. That way it will last for a long time in storage or in your fall display.
When the pumpkin is fully mature on the vine, the rind should become hard and firm. So hard, in fact, that you shouldn’t be able to puncture it with your fingernail. Only a dent from your fingernail is a good sign that your pumpkins are ready to harvest.
The rind should also have a dull sheen- not shiny or glossy. Also, give the pumpkin a good thump- it should sound hollow inside when it’s ready for you to pick.
4. The Plant’s Leaves and Stems
In the fall, lots of things start to take on a brownish hue, including the pumpkin plants in your garden.
Jen Stark, master gardener and founder of Happy DIY Home, shares that the plant’s overall appearance is a good indicator of the fruit’s ripeness. “When the vine begins to shrink and die down and the tendrils closest to the fruit turn brown, pumpkins are ready to be harvested.”
Pumpkin plant vines are pretty incredible, and they’ve worked hard all summer. At this point, the plant has done its job of producing healthy, mature fruit with seeds for the next generation, and it starts to die off.
How to Harvest a Pumpkin
When you’re getting ready for your harvest pumpkins, gear up with gloves and a sharp knife or garden scissors. The vines can get very prickly once they’ve died back and are super uncomfortable to handle without gloves.
It’s tempting to just give the fruit a twist to free it from the vine. But don’t do that, no matter how dried out the vine may be. A twisting motion can damage the stem or the pumpkin’s rind, leaving your pumpkin vulnerable to rotting faster.
Instead, use the sharp knife or garden scissors to cut the pumpkin off the vine, leaving a 4-8 inch stem section attached to the pumpkin. Protect the stem from breakage by carrying your pumpkin harvest from the bottom.
Harvest Before the First Hard Freeze
According to the Nebraska Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, pumpkin vines can tolerate a light frost without damage, but temperatures in the 20-degree Fahrenheit range will turn pumpkins soft. The harsh temperature will actually freeze the pumpkin flesh, and when it thaws, it’s just a mushy mess.
Green pumpkins also will not mature to their expected color if exposed to freezing temperatures. You can check on your local frost and freeze dates on the National Weather Service website to get a good idea of when to pick your pumpkins before the first hard freeze.
So harvest those pumpkins before any hard freezes to prevent losing any! If there is a freeze and you haven’t completed your pumpkin harvest, do it quickly to prevent rotting in your garden.
What Happens If You Pick a Pumpkin Too Early?
During the ripening process, the plant sends incredible amounts of sugar to the fruit, giving them their intense flavor and resilience against decay. On the other hand, picking pumpkins too early can lead to fruit that may rot quicker and won’t have the best flavor.
But if they’re for decorations or carving, then picking pumpkins too early may not be such a bad thing. According to Cornell University, as long as they’ve begun changing into their mature color, pumpkins can be ripened off the vine in a greenhouse or ventilated area.
This video from Harvest2Kitchen shows how:
How to Cure and Store Pumpkins
No one wants their pumpkins rotting right away, and there are several steps you can take to keep your pumpkin fresh for the longest time possible.
Two of the most important steps are curing and proper storage conditions.
The curing process produces an extra hard outer shell that can help your pumpkins last for months after harvest rather than weeks. Which is great if you’re planning on baking a pumpkin pie for Christmas! And it’s pretty easy- the University of Minnesota Extension suggests allowing pumpkins to sit someplace dry and sunny for 2 weeks to cure them.
After curing, Jen Stark shares that storage conditions also matter. “Place your pumpkins in a cool, dry area on wooden planks, boards, cardboard, or even hanging in nets or hammocks. Pumpkins may survive for at least three to six months when stored properly.”
A basement shelf, heated garage or a dark closet can all be good places to keep your pumpkins for later use.
Frequently Asked Questions about When to Pick Pumpkins
Growing pumpkins can be a fun endeavor for backyard gardening, both for decorating and cooking. Being familiar with the signs of when to pick pumpkins lets you harvest and prepare them at just the right time, so you can enjoy them for the longest time possible.
We’d love to hear from you! Do you have any other questions about when to harvest pumpkins or any other helpful growing tips to share? We learn best from one another’s experiences, so please feel free to share in the comments!