This story was originally published in October 2020.
Carving a pumpkin can be an intimidating endeavor. Even if you are making a simple jack-o’-lantern, you may be haunted by the idea that your pumpkin will rot quickly after carving, or that you will not be able to get the candle to light inside.
Luckily, this hallowed fall tradition has its own devotees who have developed handy tricks to make carved pumpkins even better. Here are three tips to carve your best pumpkin this season.
Time your carving
Timing matters when it comes to the longevity of your pumpkin. Once you cut into a pumpkin, the decay process begins, so you really should wait to carve it until just before you plan to display it.
“If it’s for Halloween, [carving] shouldn’t be more than two or three days beforehand. The actual carving introduces bacteria to the pumpkin and it decomposes quickly after that,” said Matt Pellerin, agricultural director of Treworgy Orchards in Levant.
Pellerin added that you can buy a pumpkin and leave it all fall as a decoration as long as you don’t carve it beforehand.
You can also take a few steps after carving the pumpkin to stave off decomposition. William Janelle, an artist based in Bridgton, has been carving pumpkin professionally for half a decade. He said that he uses a few tricks to make his commissioned pumpkin carvings last a little bit longer.
“Typically what I’ll do is I’ll spray [the pumpkin] with a bleach and water combination that will keep the microbes at bay for a while,” Janelle said. “Then I’ll come along with a little vaseline to seal up the exterior of where I’ve carved so it doesn’t dry out too quickly.”
Consider your candle
If you plan to use a candle to illuminate your pumpkin, consider cutting your gourd from the bottom instead of around the stem or handle.
“By the second night of having a candle inside, the top dries out and falls in,” said Judy Florenz, one of the directors of the Damariscotta Pumpkinfest and Regatta. “We do all our pumpkins by cutting a hole in the bottom and leaving the stem and top intact.”
Florenz added that if you are having trouble keeping a candle lit in your pumpkin, you may also need air holes. Also, when it comes to candles, electric ones may last longer, but Florenz still favors a traditional votive candle.
“We’ve tried different kinds of LED [candles], but we haven’t found anything that looks as good as a regular votive candle,” Florenz said.
Add a splash of color
Besides the technical elements of carving a pumpkin, there are fun ways to add a little pizzazz to a carved pumpkin. One trick is to paint the exposed pumpkin flesh with food coloring to give it a little touch of color.
“You can basically mix up red dye or blue dye and just put that on with a paint brush and it will make it pop,” Janelle said. “Obviously not on the rind itself — the rind is waterproof.”
This works especially well if you are carving a design into the rind of the pumpkin instead of cutting all the way through in the traditional jack-o’-lantern style.
“Once you’ve cut the rind away and you’re working in the 3-D that’s where you can apply [food coloring] because that will absorb the moisture,” Janelle said.
When it comes to carving pumpkins in general, Janelle said to be creative and not to be too hard on yourself if your first attempt doesn’t turn out quite right.
“Be self forgiving,” Janelle said. “If you have carved a face on one side and it didn’t turn out right, turn it around and carve on the other side.”