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Here’s What You Need to Know Before You Go Pumpkin Picking This Fall

Everyone wants to find the perfect pumpkin for their jack-o'-lantern, but choosing one can be tricky. Here are a few tips to know before you hit the patch.

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The smell of hot apple cider and pumpkin spice-flavored everything signifies that autumn is upon us (although, if you’re over PSLs, here’s how to get that pumpkin spice fix). And with the changing season come fall festivities—baking pies, navigating corn mazes and, of course, scouting out the best pumpkins you can get your hands on. But before you hit the pumpkin patches to find that ideal squash for carving, you’ll need to know these dos and don’ts for pumpkin picking.

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Avoid Soft Spots and Cuts

While trekking through farm fields and nurseries, be on the lookout for pumpkins with soft spots or cuts in the skin. These are a tell-tale sign that the flesh has already begun to rot. When you see a pumpkin you like, pick it up and make sure it’s firm all over. By avoiding mushiness, you’ll improve your jack-o’-lantern’s chances of lasting until Halloween.

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Choose the Right Shape

Ideally, you’ll also want a pumpkin with a flat bottom, to ensure that it it can stand upright to display your designs. If you’re looking to carve a detailed design, look for a plump, round pumpkin that’s symmetrical on all sides. The round shape will give you more room to carve (or paint!). If your kids, however, have their eyes set on a cute, yet odd-shaped, squash, that’s OK, too! Use the pumpkin’s imperfections to inspire your design. Here are 14 no-carve pumpkin decorating ideas.

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Check out the Stem

The size and strength of the stem are good signs of a strong, healthy squash. Choose one with a stem that is 2 to 3 inches wide. And a green stem will tell you your pumpkin has been freshly harvested, meaning it will have the longest lifespan.

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Find the Heavyweights

Choose a pumpkin that feels heavy for its size. Heavier pumpkins are fleshier, meaning they haven’t decayed as much as their scrawny counterparts. Choosing the chunkiest pumpkin you can find will give it a better chance of lasting until Oct. 31. Check out these genius pumpkin carving tips.

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Color Is Important

When choosing a carving pumpkin, make sure its color is orange throughout. Avoid green or brown spots, which mean the pumpkin is either under- or over-ripe. A pumpkin like this will look unappealing and cutting it will be difficult. Speaking of color, here are 38 of the most stunning photos of autumn across the U.S.

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Avoid Frosty Pumpkins

If you live in a cooler climate, be extra wary of frost damage. Cold weather damages flesh and skin, making the pumpkin rot faster and giving it a mushy texture. To look for frost damage, check the color surrounding the stem; if it’s duller than the rest of the pumpkin’s vibrant shade of orange, put it back.

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Don’t Carve Too Early

A rookie mistake, one we’ve all made, is getting too eager and carving pumpkins weeks before Halloween. Restrain yourself as long as you can, ideally a few days before the spooky holiday. If you carve too early, you’ll be left with a rotting mess. Keeping the pumpkin intact will make it last much longer. Excited to get decorating? These DIY crafts are almost too easy.

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Forget the Flame

Another trick? Don’t use those old-fashioned candles to light up your designs. While the flickering lights look hauntingly perfect, the flames will make the flesh cook from the inside and decay rapidly. Instead, use a battery-powered candle or colored light stick. (But if you do plan on actually cooking your pumpkin, here are five surprising health benefits.)

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Don’t Bake with the Pumpkins You Carve

Carving pumpkins were bred to be sturdy, not to pair with the delicate spices in your famous pumpkin pie. Though you can carve up any pumpkin your heart desires, if you’re planning on making Aunt Pam’s favorite pumpkin desserts from scratch, you should opt for a squash that is grown specifically for eating. The sugar pie pumpkin is a favorite. What’s the difference, you ask? The skin is slightly thinner and the flesh is sweeter than that of standard carving pumpkins. You can still bake its seeds though! Regardless of which pumpkin you pick, never, ever forget to make this recipe.

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Happy Pumpkin Picking!

Bring this checklist with you before taking the plunge into pumpkin patches and you’ll have guaranteed success. Once you get your pumpkin home, try one of these 20 no-carve pumpkin decorating ideas.

Originally Published on Taste of Home