Good Life

Carve like the experts | Tips for your best jack-o’-lantern

Terry Watson carves a pumpkin at the Arboretum at Penn State on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015.
Terry Watson carves a pumpkin at the Arboretum at Penn State on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. CDT photo

Squash lovers of central Pennsylvania — and be honest, there’s a lot of you — Sunday is your lucky day.

Beginning at 1 p.m., The Arboretum at Penn State will be giving away free pumpkins to anyone and everyone interested in taking part in this year’s jack-o’-lantern contest at the H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens.

The contest is a staple of The Arboretum’s annual Pumpkin Festival, which in addition to food and music will feature the work of some of the finest amateur jack-o’-lantern carvers in all the land.

As far as rules go, it’s pretty simple. Each participant is allowed one entry made entirely from the parts of a single pumpkin — glue, toothpicks, pins, etc. are all forbidden. This is a battle of the basics.

To help you get the most out of your free pumpkin, we consulted with a few local experts for tips.

1. Gather the right tools

Pumpkin carving is a finesse job, and oversized knives need not apply. Shari Edelson, director of horticulture and curator at The Arboretum, recommends using wood and linoleum carving tools to allow for more intricate designs.

“They work really well with pumpkins. You can get a lot of detail,” she said.

2. Select your canvas

Pumpkins are a Halloween staple, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get adventurous with your jack-o’-lantern. A cushaw or hubbard squash can provide colorful alternatives and help distinguish your house to all of the trick-or-treaters on the block.

“It can be really fun because they’re kind of unique,” Edelson said.

2. Gut the sucker

Let’s face it, jack-o’-lanterns can be a bit of a fire hazard — a decorative fire hazard — but a fire hazard nonetheless. Instead of cutting a hole in the top of your pumpkin, gutting it and placing your candle inside, try starting at the bottom. Removing the gourd’s innards from the base will allow you to place your finished product safely over a light source.

“Then you don’t have to reach into a gooey pumpkin to put your candle in there,” said Alisha Barton, horticulture and plant records coordinator at The Arboretum.

3. Leave room for inspiration

Terry Watson is a disability specialist at Penn State World Campus, but in his spare time he enjoys carving pumpkins. In the past 11 years, Watson has etched everything from “The Simpsons” family members to his boss’ face. When gutting his pumpkins, Watson likes to leave a little thickness towards the front so that he can add different depths to his carvings or correct mistakes.

4. Connect the dots

Put your design on paper first. Watson tapes his finished stencil to the face of his pumpkin and pokes small holes in the outlines of the design to transfer it to the surface as a guideline for carving.

5. Or...

If pointy things make you uncomfortable, try drawing your design directly onto the surface of the pumpkin using a permanent marker. Once you’re finished carving, you can remove unsightly leftovers with rubbing alcohol.

6. Invest in a dimmer switch

Watson finds it easier to work in environments with low light. He inserts small battery powered LED lights inside each pumpkin so that he can enhance the detail of the final product as he’s carving.

7. Have some fun with it

Pumpkin Fest has been going strong for nearly half a decade, and over the years Edelson and Barton have seen some pretty creative designs. Contestants have built jack-o’-lantern towers using rebar or bamboo, fashioned ears for “cat pumpkins” and created elaborately staged scenes with squash.

8. Jack-o’-lanterns get chapped lips, too

You’ve designed and carved a beautiful pumpkin — why should it go to waste? Spread Vaseline over the cuts you’ve made on your pumpkin to help it last longer.