Giant Pumpkins

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By: 
Michelle Phillips

Recently I watched a video of a man in Tennessee, who tried to bring home the honor or largest pumpkin in his state. At 910 pounds, the gargantuan squash fell short of the title, topping 1,700 lbs. 

But when life hands you giant pumpkins, there is but one thing to do–make a pumpkin boat. So that’s what he did, and the clip shows him paddling down a waterway, a hole carved in the top, like some kind of fantastical kayak. 

Giant pumpkin growing is an actual thing, and if you have never seen this spectacle, I suggest you put it on your bucket list. I first became aware of competitions for the largest pumpkin back in 2003 when I began working at a paper called the Anamosa Journal-Eureka.

The town held an event called Pumpkinfest and the Ryan Norlin Pumpkin Weigh-off. Ryan was a boy who raised giant pumpkins with his uncle. He was killed in a tragic boating accident, and his family and town members began the weigh-off to honor his memory. 

Back when Ryan was growing pumpkins they were topping out at around 400-500 pounds. By the time I came along some years later, the behemoths were tipping the scales at around 900 and the last year I cover the event in 2010, they were surpassing the half ton mark. Today, some are reaching nearly a ton.

People from around the Midwest, several from Wisconsin and as far away as Colorado, would load the giants onto trucks and trailers, tarp them and hope for the best. You see, when a pumpkin reaches that size, they are very prone to cracking, and one of the rules is the pumpkins cannot have any holes or cracks. 

I went to visit a pumpkin grower is Des Moines one year, who was rumored to have the biggest pumpkin anyone at the weigh-off had ever laid eyes on. Don, the man growing the massive fruit, took me through the process step-by-step. 

First you get seeds from a seed bank. The seeds have been meticulously dried and saved, with information about their breeding. Next you pick a (large) spot and prepare your soil. Common additives to the earth include fish emulsion, seaweed and manure. You must water the pumpkin, and they take a lot of water, but don’t like to be wet, so your soil must have good drainage. 

Once the fruit begins to set on the vine you observe them to discover which pumpkin looks the most hardy, with a strong stem. Then you get rid of all other pumpkins on that plant to ensure all the energy generated is going to that single, coveted pumpkin. From this point, the grower begins monitoring the orange orb to make sure the plant is healthy. 

Mice are fond of pumpkins, so moth balls are sometimes placed near the plant to deter the rodents as well as insects. Padding is placed under the fruit while it is still small, and the farmer able to lift it. This helps to prevent it from cracking as it grows. Toward the end of its life cycle, a giant pumpkin can grow 20-30 pounds in a single day. 

Getting it out of the field can be a challenge and they are typically lifted by placing heavy straps around the squash and lifting it with a winch or forklift. They are then placed on foam covered pallets for their journey to a competition where they are weighed against their cousins.

Giant pumpkin growing is not only popular in the United States, but also in England and Europe. There are several competitions in multiple countries, the process being the same.

Nurturing a pumpkin to this size is no small feat, and tales abound of those that never come to fruition. Sometimes they die on the vine, sometimes they crack when you lift them, sometimes they have a hole on the underside. Not to worry, there are chat rooms and websites you can access to get growing advice, share seeds, regale when something goes right, and commiserate when it goes terribly wrong. 

The first time I witnessed a giant pumpkin competition, I was enamored of the size, various colors, and of course, the dedication of this small number of men and women who devote their summer to growing a winner.

All I could think of that first time was Linus from “Peanuts” exclaiming, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!”

And great they are. 

 

 

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