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Fall

How to Decorate with Pumpkins this Fall

Porch Pumpkins’ Heather Torres and the Dallas Arboretum’s head horticulturist Megan Proska give us their tips and tricks on picking gorgeous gourds, arranging displays, and fighting squirrels.
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In the thick of her fourth fall season, Porch Pumpkins' Heather Torres is completely booked for 2023. Courtesy of Heather Torres

The Dallas Arboretum’s Megan Proska has always loved Halloween. So, it was fortuitous that she spent her first week working at the botanical garden nine years ago building the annual Autumn at the Arboretum’s Pumpkin Village. It was crazy and a bit chaotic, she recalls. They created a fake river with blue pumpkins, using specialty gourds as swans in the water. “I was just absolutely amazed with what you could do with pumpkins,” she says.  

Now as the senior director of horticulture, Proska’s in charge of the Pumpkin Village. They start planning the theme a year out and build the house frames in August. Pumpkin shipments start coming in around Labor Day, then Proska and dozens of staff workers and volunteers have just days to set everything up before Autumn at the Arboretum kicks off mid-September. 

Heather Torres adores the Arboretum’s fall festival. When her kids were younger, they’d walk through the Pumpkin Village multiple times a week. She was “inspired by their beautiful cascades and mounds of pumpkins,” Torres says. So she started experimenting with pumpkin displays in her own yard. Each year, they got bigger and bigger, until she launched her pumpkin decorating company, Porch Pumpkins, in 2020. Now in her fourth fall season, Torres and her team have more than 900 houses booked to bedeck in gourds and squashes. 

D Magazine chatted with both Torres and Proska about the ins and outs of pumpkin picking, decorating with gourds, fighting the elements (and squirrels), and more. 

The Scoop on Pumpkin Varieties

There are hundreds of pumpkin species in every shape, size, and color. The Arboretum uses 42 varieties for its fall festivities. Generally, gourds, which have thicker skins, keep longer than squash pumpkins, Proska says. Squashes, like Hubbard squash, are better for eating and making pies with. 

Common varieties you’ll see at grocery stores are orange jack and mystic pie pumpkins, which she likes for carving. Some white pumpkins, like crystal star and white pie jacks, are good for carving, too. Blueish pumpkins tend to last longer, Proska says. She also likes chogas, which are gnarly and green. 

Pumpkin Picking Pro-Tips

At the store or patch, give your pumpkins a once-over for nicks, which will accelerate rotting. And like an apple or a bad friend in high school, that rotting pumpkin will cause the others to rot, too. Also, get a variety of pumpkins, Torres says. She likes to include a few large and a few medium-sized varieties, like jacks and white ghost pumpkins. Then she adds on specialty pumpkins in various colors and shapes to make her displays pop. 

(Jack) Everlasting

“It’s so wonderful because you get two holidays out of your pumpkins,” Torres says. To maximize your pumpkins’ chance at lasting all season, she recommends putting your displays out in the final days of September each year. Pumpkins can generally last about six weeks, Proska says. Although, says Torres, you can expect to lose one-to-three pumpkins before Halloween and another one-to-three before Thanksgiving. The Arboretum will lose about 40 percent of its pumpkins by season’s end. There are some preservative glosses you can buy, but Torres and Proska say they won’t do much to prevent rotting. Additionally, Jack-o-lanterns go bad after a few days, so Torres’ family opts to carve theirs on Halloween eve.

Squash the Sun If You Can

You want your pumpkins to get a normal amount of sun, or three-to-four hours of direct sunlight, Torres says. After too much sun, the pumpkins will look tinged—burnt orange or brownish in color instead of bright orange. “Essentially, it’s getting sunburnt,” Torres says. If you notice a tinge, you can rotate that side out of the sun, which will make the pumpkin last another week or so. If they’re in direct scorching sunlight for too long, the pumpkins will literally melt, Proska says. Keeping your pumpkins in the shade is your best bet at longevity. “Shade is a godsend when it comes to Texas,” Proska says.  

For Torres, placing pumpkins on porches is strategic.

Much Ado about Moisture 

Torres learned early in decorating journey that putting pumpkins in the grass caused problems—they rot. (You can tell a pumpkin is starting to rot, they say, if its skin starts to soften.) Pumpkins have an “It’s complicated” relationship with moisture. Rain1 can make them grow bigger and can revitalize a dusty pumpkin in your yard. But too much moisture will rot the gourd out. To avoid the issue, Torres puts her pumpkin arrangements on porches—hence the name. 

Over at the Arboretum, staff use wood pallets and cardboard as a base layer to keep the pumpkins from sitting directly on the ground. They’ll sprinkle that layer with hay to cover the cardboard. Hay bales are great at preventing rot, too, Proska says, “just because the water either will go straight through the hay bale or it’ll dry out faster.” 

Squirrel Struggles 

If you keep giant orange fruit outside, odds are you’re going to enter a blood feud with the local squirrels. The Cretans will nibble and gnaw and destroy your precious displays. The Arboretum squirrels cause lots of problems, although they tend to gravitate to the larger pumpkins, Proska says. All the garden staff can do is shoo them away. “There’s nothing we can do,” she says with a sigh. “We’re at the mercy of the squirrels.” Torres, however, has a solution: Spray vinegar water or sprinkle cayenne pepper on the pumpkins as a shield. 

Gourd-Looking Arrangements

When arranging your pumpkins, start with the largest first, Torres says. Then work in the medium and small gourds and squashes, and your specialty pumpkins, which are your “showstoppers.” Proska begins with hay bales—she’ll stack two bales in the back and one in the front. She’ll then bookend the bales with two massive big mac pumpkins. After that, she’ll start piling in the rest of her materials. Don’t be afraid to stack pumpkins on top of each other, Proska says. “It’s actually pretty amazing how well pumpkins will fall into place on each other and still look magical.” The Arboretum will also use things like dried Pampas grass, sunflowers, starflowers, and cornstalks in its topiaries and house displays. Corn husks can be used like paper crafts, Proska says, and she recommends wetting the cornstalks to make them more pliable. 

Where Else Can I Put Pumpkins?

Often, Torres will leave a few spare pumpkins at her clients’ houses so they can use them inside. People love to have pumpkin stacks around their fireplace or as a tablescape, she says. Because they’re not exposed to the elements, inside pumpkins will last longer. Torres likes to add them to floral arrangements—if you have orchids, add a few white mini pumpkins to the bowl. “That is so pretty.” You can also use mini pumpkins to make wreaths and garlands, Proska says. Use a thicker rope and floral wire to attach the pumpkins by the stem. Don’t pierce the pumpkins, she warns. “That will automatically expose them to the elements abroad.” 

Porch Pumpkins is completely booked for the 2023 season. Explore Autumn at the Arboretum through November 5.

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Catherine Wendlandt

Catherine Wendlandt

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Catherine Wendlandt is the online associate editor for D Magazine’s Living and Home and Garden blogs, where she covers all…

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