Head to a local pumpkin patch to find a good selection of pumpkins. ATTRIBUTION: Kam Abbott (Flickr)

Pumpkin-picking has been one of my favorite fall activities since I was a young child. Each year, we take a trip to the local pumpkin patch in search of the biggest, roundest pumpkins to take home and carve into jack-o’-lanterns. While pumpkins can range in size, shape, and color, there are several characteristics that can indicate damage or early spoilage. Follow this perfect pumpkin guide designed to help you choose, harvest, and care for pumpkins this fall.

Pick a Design

Unless you plan on leaving your pumpkin as is, you’ll want to choose the design you plan to carve or paint before purchasing your pumpkin. The pattern or picture you choose will help determine the overall size and shape of pumpkin you’ll need to pull off your design. For example, if you’re carving a spooky tree, you may want a wider pumpkin that allows you to spread out the branches. If you plan to use a stencil, bring it along and experiment with different pumpkins to find the perfect fit.

Inspect the Skin

Picking your pumpkin directly off the vine is the best way to verify its freshness. However, there are other ways to determine a pumpkin’s approximate age. Older pumpkins tend to have duller skin and may have started showing signs of early decay, such as soft spots or mold growth. You’ll also want to avoid damaged pumpkins that have nicks, cuts, or punctures, as skin damage can cause spoilage to occur more rapidly.

Know Your Options

When you think of pumpkins, you probably picture the traditional round, orange variety. However, there are dozens of different types of pumpkins. They can be used as decorations at Halloween, eaten in various dishes and desserts, or made into skin-care products. Be sure to choose a pumpkin for its intended use, as different pumpkins have different characteristics. For example, pie pumpkins typically contain more flesh than thin-walled, stringy jack-o’-lantern pumpkins.

Check Ripeness

Not sure how to tell if a pumpkin is ripe? Color is often a good indicator of ripeness, with a bright orange hue being the ideal shade to aim for. It’s important to note that not all pumpkins have to be completely orange to be ripe. To determine ripeness, gently knock on the side of the pumpkin. If it sounds hollow, the pumpkin is ripe and ready to be picked. Ripe pumpkins also have firm skin that doesn’t puncture easily as well as a hard stem.

Keep the Stem

Once you’ve determined that your pumpkin is ready for picking, it’s time to harvest. Using a sharp knife or pruners, carefully cut the pumpkin from the vine, leaving 3 to 4 inches of stem. Keeping the stem will help extend the pumpkin’s lifespan. If you choose to pick your pumpkin directly from the vine, allow it to cure in the sun for about a week to toughen up the skin. To preserve the quality of your pumpkin, store or display it in a cool, dry place.