When should you buy your fall decorations — pumpkins, squash etc. — and how can you keep them from going bad?
I get asked this a lot, but this year especially, you should buy early and figure on preserving them.
The reason for this is there is going to be a severe pumpkin and squash shortage due to Irene, and the availability of good quality product may be a problem later on.
What you want to avoid are flood casualties that have been gathered up before they were ready and ripened in the barn.
When choosing your pumpkin or squash (and this goes for all winter squash — edible and ornamental), you want to be sure the fruit is vine ripened and thus high in sugar content.
Besides the obvious benefit to taste, the high sugar, or “brix”, preserves the product longer before it degrades or rots.
Think of how preserving meat, fish , or vegetables is accomplished. By infusing them with salt or sugar and drying them, they are naturally preserved against bacterial assault.
A high brix fruit or vegetable will last for weeks on the shelf as opposed to a green-picked and box-ripened one, because it already has a high enough concentration of sugar to ward off most problems for a reasonable amount of time.
Winter squash and pumpkin were bred and favored for their natural ability to be stored for long periods of time without additional preservation.
Here’s how to choose the best pumpkins and squash:
- Start by looking for a rich color or, in the case of light-colored squash, a blush of color where the fruit was resting on the ground. The stem should be green, or at least full and not shrivelled. Pick up the fruit and feel how heavy it is. The more dense it feels, the higher the sugar content. If you see a washed out color, a weak stem, or if you pick up a pumpkin that feels a little light, it was probably ripened off the vine.
- Examine the fruit for any signs of surface infection. Brown spots or soft spots are an indicator there is a problem. Be sure to handle it carefully. Small cuts can be calloused and healed if you are careful. You have probably seen a healed cut on winter squash or pumpkin before, and they do not degrade the fruit as long as they are hard.
And here's how to make your selections last longer:
- After making your selection, wash and disinfect the fruit when you return home. This can be done with a mild Clorox solution or hydrogen peroxide.
- Place the fruit in a warm dry place — in the sun is okay — for about a week. This is a curing process which makes the skin hard and resistant to damage and, while it may have already been done by a conscientious farmer, I wouldn’t leave it to chance.
- When you make your display, try to avoid putting the fruits directly on any surfaces that will draw or hold moisture for a long time. The classic culprit is concrete, which looks like a good idea but acts like a wick and remains wet under the fruit all the time. Use a little straw or hay, or place them on a thin board of some kind. While this is not essential, it will improve the life span of the fruits.
- It goes without saying, that any cuts or bruises will open up a pathway for bacteria to go to work, so handle carefully and, as I said before, as long as you can keep them clean until they scab over you are okay. Some light frost is no problem, but if you want to keep them protected from a hard frost cover with a sheet or tarp.
With a little care, there is no reason you can’t take the fruits from your Halloween display indoors and store them until needed for Thanksgiving dinner in November.
Personally, I plan on eating winter squash for the whole winter. I'll avoid the high prices by storing it now while fresh, sound, and reasonably priced.
Keep on growing.