A Little Something About Big Pumpkins

Guest post by Beate Schwirtlich

A round this time each year huge pumpkins, some as big as a thousand pounds, are loaded–using either a forklift or a bunch of strong people and a tarp–into vans and trucks and taken to contests. Growers have spent months tending to these pumpkins that by now have become lumpy, flattened-by-their-own-unnatural-mass giants. This years’ heavyweight pumpkin of 1140 pounds was grown by Dave Stelts, and weighed in at Canfield, Ohio. Nine pumpkins grown this year joined “club 1000” (the informal name for growers who have “broken the barrier”), a record in itself. In the eighties, the heaviest pumpkin weighed in at just over 400 pounds-now a pumpkin over 1000 pounds is expected each year.

A guy named Howard Dill gets most of the credit for the size of pumpkin being grown today. He’s a Nova Scotia farmer who started growing pumpkins in the fifties and spent 30 years breeding them for size. He held the world record from 1979 to 1982. Today, he sells his own variety of seeds, Dill’s Atlantic Giant, by mail order. Pumpkins grown from his seeds are known to grow into the biggest pumpkins of any.

It’s supposed to be a hobby, but competition for first prize weigh-off contests is serious. The people who really want to win are always trying to concoct ways of giving their pumpkin the advantage-a special fertilizer mix, a certain way of a training the vines, a custom greenhouse… If it’s not money on the line, it’s skill and pride. One contest, held by the World Pumpkin Confederation, offers a $50 000 first prize, far more than any other. But there’s still cache in growing the biggest pumpkin, even if it’s not for the big dough. Other growers respect the skill of winners: they go to them for seeds and advice, and follow their methods of growing (if they are willing to share them) religiously. Howard Dill for example is actually described as the `guru’ of big pumpkins by other growers. Some even protect their prize pumpkins with elaborate security systems.

The people who are best at growing pumpkins muster all their human ingenuity and gardening know-how to give nature a winning push. A prize pumpkin doesn’t have to be pretty, edible, or even non-toxic. It just has to weigh a ton. The plants are monitored, measured, and treated scientifically but are at the same time coddled and even loved. They are fertilized according to a program, and liberally treated with fungicides, insecticides, herbicides, and anything else in the arsenal of old-fashioned, chemical-heavy style gardening—even before the grower notices a problem! These gourds are not bred to be pest resistant, that’s for sure. A site called The Pumpkin Nook pretty much expresses the feeling growers have towards the use of pesticides:

” If you are in search of the behemoth pumpkin, spraying to control insects is unfortunately a must…Fortunately those striving for prize winning pumpkins will not be eating the fruit, so health risks are lower. “

Theoretically, though, one fruit could supply the pumpkin for 900 pies. In “Training and Pruning your Pumpkin Vines” David McCallum tells a story of sacrifice in the quest to keep a giant squash safe from the weather:

” The squash was kept growing in the greenhouse with the aid of a propane furnace until November 4. The greenhouse even made it through a 4″ wet snowfall. By setting the alarm clock and getting up every four hours, my brother and I were able to keep the roof clean all night long. “

No wonder pumpkin growers describe their hobby as a sport-and he’s probably not the first to miss a good nights’ sleep over his pumpkin. One grower describes the nerves that accompany the late season, when the pumpkin is getting huge, as the time to start taking nerve pills. It seems the stress is incredible; the pumpkins grow 15 to 20 pounds a day, a rate of growth that can cause them to split without any warning, the growers’ worst fear.

Less earnest accounts tell of increasing the heft of pumpkins by injecting them with growth hormones (the story I’d heard about feeding pumpkins milk turns out to be a myth), filling the hollow with water the night before the weigh-off, patching up cracks with silicone and disguising signs of rot. But if the rules for pumpkin weigh-offs are to be followed, they mostly use every trick in the gardening book, many of them extravagant.

I always thought that this was an innocent hobby. It’s actually rather cutthroat and involves a lot of fertilizer and water in the name of being number one. If you ask me, it’s more a human accomplishment that happens to involve a plant. Here are some tips of the pumpkin growing superstars, things that may seem a bit odd to the uninitiated. If you ask me, only true pumpkin maniacs would go so far in pursuit of a giant, unedible vegetable.

  • Soil is most important. Most how-to articles recommend digging a pit five foot square and three feet deep (!) and filling it with a mixture of sheep, chicken, horse and cattle manure and leaf litter all mixed together with topsoil.
  • Before germination, seeds are put in water and aerated with a fish tank bubbler “to introduce lots of oxygen into the water and to the seeds”.
  • “Avoid touching the fruit with your bare hands…Wear clean gloves if you must,” writes one grower. Apparently pumpkins can suffer viral problems if actually touched.
  • Growers keep diaries of daily measurements and progress of their plants
  • Dowsers are sometimes hired to find a source of underground water. Growing pumpkins get as much as a thousand gallons of water a day.
  • “Pumpkin cabanas” shade the actual fruit during mid-summer, while elaborate windbreaks protect them from the wind.
  • Special heating units are dug into the soil before transplanting outside, so that the soil can be heated from below and above.
  • One grower suggests treating transplants like newborn babies.
  • Avoid soil compaction in the pumpkin patch: “Wear snowshoes if you must.”

I’ve realized that I don’t have the right personality type for this hobby. I’m not meticulous enough, I don’t own a pick-up truck to cart the thing around, and I think I’d rather have a messy pumpkin patch with lots of small happy little pumpkins for making into pie. Is there a contest for the happiest pumpkin patch?


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