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Giant pumpkins — more than just a fad

October 22, 2008
By Richard Gast, Franklin County Cornell Cooperative Extension

It's a competitive sport. Traditional. It requires hard work, determination, discipline, attentiveness, patience and the ability to anticipate. It's grown in appreciation, not just in this country, but internationally. Fall is the time of final defeat for most and victory for a lucky few. No, I'm not talking about baseball. I'm talking about growing giant pumpkins.

In recent years, growing giant pumpkins has become all the rage. Competitions have been sprouting up everywhere. And more and more growers are getting into the game.

Among this year's winners were Steve Daletis of Pleasant Hill, Oregon, whose enormous entry in the Canby Giant Pumpkin Weigh Off in Oregon tipped the scales at an impressive 1,364 pounds. This year's event, facilitated by the Pacific Giant Vegetable Growers, began at 10 a.m. sharp when a giant pumpkin was dropped from the sky, crushing a 1980 Mazda, while thousands of spectators cheered. As for Mr. Deletis; he has grown larger pumpkins in the past. In fact, he triumphed in Canby in 2003, with a 1,385 pound monster, a world record at the time.

But that's small potatoes, or should I say pumpkins, when compared to phenomenal fruits entered in the Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off at Half Moon Bay, Calif., where Thad Starr of Pleasant Hill, Ore. took first-place honors with a 1,528-pound behemoth, and runner-up Leonardo Urena of Napa, Calif. won a prize for the Biggest Pumpkin from the State of California with his 1,404 pound entry.

Other growers responsible for the cultivation of pumpkins weighing in at more that 3/4 of a ton are Jake Van Kooten of British Columbia (1,536.5 pounds) and Quinn Werner of Pennsylvania (1,521.5 pounds). So, who holds the current world record? That would be Joe Jutras of North Scituate, R.I. According to the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, an ever-growing affiliation of North American pumpkin growing associations, whose stated mission is to promote the sport/hobby of growing giant pumpkins throughout the world, Rhode Island is the number-one giant-pumpkin-growing state in the nation. And Joe, the reigning world heavyweight champion, is at the top of the heap after entering a massive 1689 pound uber-pumpkin in the Giant Pumpkin Contest at the Topsfield Fair in Topsfield, Mass, on Sept. 29, 2007. His elephantine entry shattered the previous competition record of 1,502 pounds, which was held by Rhode Island farmer Ron Wallace of Coventry, and beat out Bill Rodonis of Litchfield, N.H., whose 1,566 pound entry looked like a sure winner up to that point.

In fact, it appears that 2007 was a great year for growing particularly ponderous pumpkins. Besides the super-sized gourds already mentioned, there was the sumo wrestler of a squash grown by Donald Young of Des Moines, Iowa. Entered in the Anamosa, Iowa, Pumpkinfest and Weigh-Off, it weighed in at 1,662-pounds, just 27 pounds shy of Jutras' colossal cucurbit. There was also a 1,631.5 pound behemoth grown by Dan and Jason McKie of Gasport, N.Y. That Goliath of a gourd was comparable in size and shape to Jabba the Hutt!

New York has had two world champions. Donald Black of Winthrop took the record in 1993 and Paula and Nathan Zehr of Lowville were world champions in 1996. In 2005, Andy Wolf of Little Valley, N.Y., took top state honors in the Cooperstown Pumpkinfest Weigh Off with his 1,407.3 pound entry. Although Andy's colossal cucurbit did not set a world record, it did set the current state record and Mr. Wolf took home $2,000 dollars in prize money. This year's Cooperstown winners were Randy and Debra Sundstrom of Walton. Their mammoth melon, although a dwarf by comparison to these others, weighed in at 1,248 pounds.

There are disappointments, too. This year, Steve Connolly of Sharon, R.I. nurtured a leviathan that measured more than 16 feet around and that he believed would weigh in at more than 1,800 pounds. But, Connolly's great pumpkin, potentially the greatest of all time, was disqualified because of a small hole that had formed along one of its ribs, leaving the "beast of the east," as he referred to his Herculean hopeful, with a leak.

Only one grower has held the world record more than once. Howard Dill of Windsor, Nova Scotia, Canada, held consecutive world records from 1979 to 1982. Since 1979, every world champion pumpkin grown has been either directly or indirectly from his patented Atlantic Giant hybrid seed.

If you're looking to grow a world-record pumpkin, Howard Dill's Atlantic Giant is the only seed there is. And if you're looking to merely grow extra large, but wieldy pumpkins, Big Max and Mammoth Gold seem to be the two most popular jumbo pumpkin varieties. Another favorite, Prizewinner, is reputed to produce large pumpkins that are the most uniform in size, shape and color.

Pumpkins grow best in soil that has a pH of 6.0 to 6.8 and that is rich in organic matter. Many competitive growers recommend adding two to five yards of compost or rotted manure per plant, in the fall.

Planting a fall cover crop of winter rye and turning it under in the spring is also highly recommended.

Pumpkins require a long growing season and warm soils. Many competitive growers start their plants indoors or in greenhouses three or four weeks before the last expected frost. Plants are started individually in moist, well-balanced potting medium, in 8" or 12" peat pots. Once they have begun growing, they cannot be allowed to become root-bound.

They will need to be hardened off for about a week before being transplanted outdoors. The garden site you choose should provide full sun, adequate drainage, and allow no less than 20 feet of space in every direction per plant. Pumpkin plants are shallow rooted and in the absence of rain will require daily watering, keeping in mind that wet foliage increases the likelihood of mildew and other diseases.

There are as many fertilizer regimens as there are growers. Most involve weekly applications of compost and/or rotted manure, water soluble plant food, manure or compost teas, urea or fish emulsion. Once flowers appear and pumpkins begin to form, they should be allowed to grow for a few weeks before one or a few of the fastest growing and/or best shaped are selected and the rest removed, along with any that may set later on. The selected pumpkins should then gain weight and size quickly and steadily. In fact, some champion growers tell of pumpkins growing at a peak rate of 35 to 50 pounds a day.

They warn, however, that markedly accelerated growth rates often result in fruits splitting open because they are unable to accommodate such rapid development.

Some growers choose to grow their selected pumpkins on pallets. This gets them off the ground, which promotes better air circulation and prevents rotting. The pumpkins may need to be protected from direct sunlight, which can cause premature hardening of the outer skin and inhibit growth.

For more detailed information on growing pumpkins, giant or otherwise, you can contact your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office.



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