More and more gardeners are being bitten by the bug that drives them to grow the largest vegetables possible. While growers may seek to grow the largest tomatoes, melons, peppers, or nearly any other vegetable, the quest to grow the largest vegetable type of all has become a passion for many. Squash growers are finding the fun and excitement of striving to grow the most gigantic pumpkin. That fact is evident at the National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, California, where the giant pumpkin competition is sanctioned by the international Great Pumpkin Commonwealth and creates excitement among both competitors and spectators alike.
The Great Pumpkin Commonwealth’s mission cultivates the hobby of growing giant pumpkins throughout the world by establishing standards and regulations that ensure quality of fruit, fairness of competition, recognition of achievement, fellowship and education of all participating growers and weigh-off sites. The GPC oversees and sanctions the results of more than 90 weigh-offs across the globe.
The largest pumpkin at the National Heirloom Exposition weighed 1,725 pounds and was grown by Richard Westervelt of Granite Bay, California. At age 79 years, Westervelt had been growing giant pumpkins competitively for only 5 years; he got into the hobby quite by accident when his grandson planted some pumpkins and then didn’t want to take care of them. Westervelt nurtured the orphaned pumpkin plants. When one plant produced a pumpkin that grew to 300 pounds, he knew he had found an exciting new hobby that would lead him to cultivate the giant cucurbits.
In contrast to the years and gardening experience of the first place winner, Ruben Frias was the youngest competitor at the National Heirloom Expo. The young man from Napa, California, took 2nd place honors when his pumpkin topped out at 1,667 pounds, sending a huge smile across his face. Into his fifth year of growing giant pumpkins, Frias had planted 4 seeds into his garden plot on the Hudson Ranch where he is employed. After losing one of the plants, he used his free time when not working for Hudson to painstakingly care for his pumpkin patch. He said that he got into the sport for fun, and still grows pumpkins for the fun of it. He pointed out that often times his monetary investments are not recovered with winning prizes, and that doesn’t consider his countless hours of work.
Gary Miller, also of Napa, California, says that his claim to fame is that he grows more large pumpkins than anyone else in the world. While most growers focus on just 3-5 pumpkin plants, he has more than 20 large ones growing in his patch. A visit to his one-acre pumpkin patch shows evidence that he is a seasoned and dedicated pumpkin grower who has been at it for more than 20 years. His introduction into pumpkin growing came when he was working as a landscape designer in Napa Valley. Robert Mendavi Winery commissioned him to grow big pumpkins for display. With his first crop of giant pumpkins, Miller was hooked. He says, “It takes over your life!”
Miller likes to enter his giant pumpkins into contests and likes it even better when he wins, but competition is not the only reason that he grows pumpkins. He grows big pumpkins commercially to provide them for display around the country, often selling them to Las Vegas establishments that include the luxurious Bellagio Hotel and Casino.
The first step to growing a large pumpkin is to start with a selectively-bred seed that has genetic potential to produce giant pumpkins. The preferred seed is from various strains of Dill’s Atlantic Giant Pumpkin variety, developed by Howard Dill in Novia Scotia, Canada, in 1978 and considered to be the “granddaddy“ of all giant pumpkins. While Atlantic Giant (C.maxima) seed is available at many commercial seed houses, including Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, acquiring seeds capable of producing the most giant of the giants has its own excitements. Seeds from the winning giants are often traded, bartered, or sold, with a single seed sometimes bringing as much as $500 at auction.
Growing the giant pumpkins involves an entire summer of hard work. Because it can take up to 6 months to produce a winning giant, growers in climates with shorter growing seasons need to start their seeds inside and transplant outside after the danger of frost has passed. Pumpkins should be planted in good, well-drained soil that is slightly acidic or nearly neutral. The plants can produce long rambling vines and need to be spaced about 20 feet apart.
Most growers hand pollinate their plants, often crossing the male flower of one winning strain with the female flower of another winning strain. They make sure they have chosen a female flower on a strong and healthy vine to improve chances that the baby pumpkin will get the nutrition it needs to grow into a giant. Because large pumpkins can grow as much as 65 pounds per day, they need lots of food. Ruben Frias said he used 20 cubic yards of compost to feed his 3 plants throughout the season. Each plant can also need up to 20 gallons of water a couple of times a week during a dry season.
Most champion pumpkin growers have their own methods for producing the contest winners. While many growers are willing to share their favorite tips and methods, others believe that they have unique methods they want to keep secret. Many of them have particular ways of covering their growing pumpkins to protect them from the elements. Others have sprinkler systems in the pumpkin patch to lower the temperature for the growing plants. Gary Miller says that after the patch reaches 90 degrees F., the plant shuts down and stops feeding. Sharing tips and secrets or not, pumpkin growers appear to enjoy the comradery and fellowship that accompanies the hobby.
World records for giant pumpkins date back to 1900, according to data from giantpumpkin.com, a site that keeps track of pumpkin records and growing data. It was 96 years later that the first pumpkin was reported to have reached a weight of more than 1,000 pounds. Compare that to the current world record that is held by Beni Meier of Switzerland for his massive pumpkin that weighed in at 2,323 pounds in October, 2014.
North American pumpkin growers had an active year in 2015 as they watched the North American giant pumpkin record reach new heights and surpass 3 different records in just a matter of weeks. The 2014 record of 2,058 pounds was crushed by Gene McMullen in September, 2015. His giant pumpkin grown in Streator, Illinois, weighed in at 2,145.5 pounds at the Cedarburg Wine and Harvest Festival in Cedarburg, Wisconsin.
McMullen’s reign as king of the North America pumpkin growers was short lived, though. Three weeks later, a new record was set, also in Wisconsin, when Josiah Brandt of Rudolph, Wisconsin, took top honors with his 2,185 pound pumpkin at the Stillwater Harvest Fest. Stillwater Harvest Fest 2015 will go down as the heaviest pumpkin weigh-off in the world, with the top 10 pumpkins weighing in at 18,018 pounds, according to an article in the Stillwater Current.
Brandt, also saw has reign as supreme pumpkin grower come to an abrupt end that same weekend when a Rhode Island grower’s pumpkin topped 2,230.5 pounds on the scale. Ron Wallace of Greene, Rhode Island, entered his cucurbit in the Southern New England giant Pumpkin Growers Weigh Off in Warren, Rhode Island. At the time of this writing, seasoned grower Ron Wallace still holds the record for the largest pumpkin grown in North America — and the 2nd largest pumpkin in the world.
Enthusiasm for growing giant pumpkins has become so widespread that many growers now have access to membership in local or regional social clubs or organizations dedicated to growing, teaching, and sharing. Many states have their own organizations, or several states in a region may band together, as in the Southern New England Giant Pumpkin Growers or the Midwest Pumpkin Growers Association. Although competitive, giant pumpkin growers want to promote goodwill among those who participate in this activity that may be categorized as a hobby, a sport or an addiction.
The Great Pumpkin Commonwealth has a detailed list of rules and regulations for giant pumpkin competitions. Article II specifies rules pertaining to the fruits and growers:
1. The entry must be exhibited by the grower or team.
2. All specimens that will be submitted to the GPC for prize money and recognition must be weighed on a certified scale with only the fruit on the scale. Any fruit weighed with a tarp, pallet, or any other lifting device will be classified unofficial weight.
3. No foreign material (i.e. fungicides, caulking, skin additives, etc.) will be permitted in the weighing of any fruit. Vines must be trimmed to within one inch of the stem of the fruit.
4. The specimen must be sound, healthy, and undamaged. Entries must be free of rot, holes or cracks through to the cavity, and serious soft spots.
5. The GPC will recognize one entry per grower or team for top ten average calculations.
6. No specimen will be allowed into competition at a GPC site if that specimen has been previously entered at another competition.