Create the Perfect Pumpkin This Halloween -

Fall makes us think of leaves changing color, cooler weather, and pumpkins, whether we’re putting them into a pie or decorating the front porch. Even if you don’t “do” Halloween, pumpkins can be part of your fall décor, so let’s talk about picking the perfect pumpkin and, if you’re into carving them, some tips to do it well.

Choosing the perfect pumpkin

What makes the perfect pumpkin for your decorating scheme? First, consider your design and match the shape of the pumpkin to your plans (or conversely, find a pumpkin that speaks to you and then determine your design based on its shape). Tall and skinny? Squat and wide? Do you want to stack several pumpkins? Once you’ve decided on your design and the type of pumpkin you need to create it, look at the condition of the pumpkin.

Anna Lyles of Lyles Family Farm and Mesilla Valley Maze shared some tips from her more than 20 years in the pumpkin business. She says, “Your pumpkin needs to be firm all the way around with no soft spots. Soft spots mean it may rot from the inside. Make sure the stem — the handle — is firmly attached, but don’t pick it up by the handle. It can loosen the stem from the pumpkin itself and then it can start going soft.”

She adds, “Choosing a pumpkin depends on what you are going to do with it. If you’re going to paint it, you want it to be as smooth as possible, without many ribs. If you’re going to carve it, the ribs don’t matter, but the hardness does. If it is really hard, it will be harder to carve and cut through. If you are going to stack them, you want them nice and flat on top and bottom. We grow several varieties that sit flat so you can stack them — white ones, blue ones, orange ones. I have people who buy white pumpkins and stack them in winter to make a snowman. People get white pumpkins for wedding decorations, too.”

Anna explains that because pumpkins are in the squash family and are a winter vegetable, as long as they are kept in a cool place, they can last quite a long time . . . perfect to save for decorating in winter. Smaller pumpkins can be kept in the refrigerator to save for Thanksgiving.


A carved pumpkin with the design of a witch on a broomstick.Any search on the Internet will reward you with hundreds of great ideas for decorating with your pumpkins, from fun fall displays to scary carved or painted pumpkins. You can create a simple and beautiful pumpkin decoration by, for example, punching or drilling holes that you fill with marbles or glass floral beads to create a multicolored light effect.

Halloween pumpkin ideas include zombies with pumpkin seeds for teeth, skeletons complete with a second pumpkin for the body, or the traditional jack-o’-lantern with a crooked smile. If you are creative-idea challenged, just surf the web until you find a design that matches your interest and carving ability.

You can freehand your design as you carve or take a few extra minutes to sketch it out on paper and then “trace” it onto the pumpkin with a fork or sharp pencil. Stab your tool of choice into the pumpkin to give you cutting lines to follow.

Carving tools

“The seeds of great pumpkin carving consist of the right tools and the right Halloween spirit,” says Las Cruces psychologist Dr. Stuart Kelter, who has carved birthday/Halloween pumpkins for his Halloween-born daughter, Amalia Zeitlin, every year for more than a dozen years.

He says, “Any pumpkin-carving set that you can get at any grocery store will work. They come with several little saws of different sizes, and a poking tool, and maybe another tool or two. And some come with a booklet with designs that you can copy or adapt.”

You can also try a serrated kitchen knife or, if you are an adult with a steady hand, a sharper X-ACTO knife.

Time to carve

We all start by cutting the top off the pumpkin, right? Well, maybe we’ve been wrong all these years! One pumpkin-carving expert suggests instead creating the “lid” on the bottom. Think of this: you don’t have to reach into the pumpkin to light your candle (or place your LED tealight) — simply lift the pumpkin, light the candle, and put the pumpkin back over it. Genius! It is also supposed to help make the walls of the pumpkin more stable.

After you cut your lid (top or bottom, but if on top, be sure to make it an irregular cut so the lid can’t fall in), it’s time to dig in and haul out the pumpkin guts. There are special scrapers made for the task, but a big spoon or ice cream scoop works fine. If your pumpkin has thick walls, while you’re operating on the inside, consider scraping the face side thinner to make your carving step easier. Be sure to remove all the string and seeds to help keep your pumpkin from rotting. You can use the seeds and even the carved-out sections for delicious treats (see story on page 28).

Of course, instead of carving you can also easily decorate your pumpkin with stickers, paint, or even permanent markers. There are push-in features that make your pumpkin like a giant Mr. Potato Head. Glow-in-the-dark paint makes a great option because your pumpkin can shine without the use of candles. You can apply gauze for a zombie pumpkin, use fabric or tape, or whatever your imagination and design dictate because, to be honest, a great pumpkin doesn’t require carving. Anna says, “You can use anything you want. We’ve had people put glitter on them. People sometimes use stencils and acrylic paint.”

Pumpkin preservation

Now that the face is carved, you’re all done, right? Wrong! There are steps you can take to make your pumpkin last longer, which are helpful if you’re really in the spirit of the season and carve your pumpkin a week or so early.

You can do a wipe-down or spray inside and out with one teaspoon of bleach in a quart of water to help kill bacteria, then give it a spray daily to help keep it fresh. Also, after the bleach spray dries, you can apply petroleum jelly or vegetable oil to the cut areas to help seal the moisture inside your pumpkin. However, if you do that, use LED lights instead of candles since oil products burn. If your jack-o’-lantern is really wilting, you could douse the entire pumpkin in an ice bath to rehydrate it, then dry it thoroughly to prevent rot.

Now, proudly display your pumpkin creation on the front porch for all to see and enjoy!

Visit your local pumpkin patch

Of course, you can find a perfectly fine (and possibly local) pumpkin at any grocery store, but isn’t it more fun to wander a pumpkin patch in search of your own Great Pumpkin? These fun fall venues not only offer pumpkin patches, but plenty of other activities like corn mazes to make your visit a perfect fall family adventure. Be sure to check the website or call to see if days and hours have changed.

Corn Maze at El Paso’s Farm Land (Open weekends September 30 – October 29, 2023)
1100 Nuevo Hueco Tanks Blvd., Socorro or 915-213-4386

La Union Maze (Open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through November 5, 2023)
1101 Highway 28, La Union or 915-549-1323

Mesilla Valley Maze (Open weekends September 30 – October 29, 2023)
3855 W. Picacho Avenue, Las Cruces or 575-526-1919


Need delicious ideas for pumpkin treats? We have them for you!

Written by Cheryl Fallstead • Photos courtesy Mesilla Valley Maze, Leora Zeitlin, and Dr. Stuart Kelter
Originally published in Neighbors magazine | 2019

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