What is it about pumpkins that delights us so much? Like Linus in the 1966 animated TV special, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” we seem to be infatuated with this iconic bright orange squash. Maybe it’s because, similar to the turning of the leaves and the smell of wood smoke, pumpkins are a harbinger of autumn and the holiday season. Or maybe it’s just that Americans are obsessed with size.
“The bigger, the better,” we say—some of us more than others.
For, you see, there’s a certain breed of pumpkin-lover among us that takes things to the next level. You can find them at fairs across the nation, displaying their gargantuan produce to crowds of awestruck onlookers as they compete to break records (whether it’s their own or the world’s). Passionate, driven, talented, and maybe just a little bit obsessed, they’re the growers of massive pumpkins, and this is their story.
Bitten by the Giant Pumpkin Bug
“You start with a seed about the size of your thumbnail,” says Woody Lancaster. “You get hooked. I think it becomes an obsession more than a hobby. Everybody loves the pumpkin, but it takes a lot of work.” Lancaster, a member of the New England Giant Pumpkin Growers Association (NEGPGA), says he spends about two hours a day caring for his pumpkins. But, it seems to be worth it. He achieved his personal best last September when he won the giant pumpkin weigh-off at the Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts with a 2003.5-pound beauty.
Lancaster’s obsession began over 20 years ago, when he brought his then-eight-year-old son to see the giant pumpkins at a local fair. “He saw that and wanted to grow one, so that’s how we got started,” he remembers. Like most growers new to extreme gardening, Lancaster figured he’d ask the experts. He approached Hugh Wiberg, a founding member of the NEGPGA, for seeds and advice, and has been growing massive pumpkins and competing in weigh-ins ever since.
Giant pumpkin growers are a small but tight-knit community. “We’ve got a couple thousand growers worldwide, so most of us know each other,” Lancaster explains. Ryan Joyner, the president of the Pacific Northwest Giant Pumpkin Growers (PNWGPG), is in agreement. “At this point, most of my friends are pumpkin-growers,” he says, describing them as “the greatest, craziest people you’ll meet in your life.”
It’s easy to get sucked into the sport of growing massive fruits and vegetables. “Realistically, it brings out a little bit of the kid in everyone,” Joyner enthuses. “I’ve liked pumpkins since I was little, but when you get one that grows 20 to 50 pounds a day…it’s pretty amazing to see these things grow. It’s super unreal.” While Joyner’s pumpkins have completely taken over his front yard, his wife Jena doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, she, too, is a growing enthusiast (in addition to being treasurer of PNWGPG). Every year, the couple engages in a friendly giant pumpkin-growing competition. “She completely kicks my butt,” Joyner concedes.
Lessons in Extreme Gardening
As you might expect, the most successful gardeners are often those who have been doing it for decades. Giant pumpkin-growing communities, which can be found in practically every region of the country, are extremely welcoming, with members sharing advice, encouragement, and even seeds from previous award-winning vegetables. But it’s a competitive field, and there’s more to triumphing than just bragging rights. At last year’s Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-off in Half Moon Bay, Calif., Washington resident and PNWGPG member Joel Holland broke the American record and won over $16,000 for his entry, a monstrous gourd weighing in at 2,363 pounds.
Once they’re transported and weighed, a lucky grower may also have the opportunity to sell their massive produce to venues such as hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, and zoos for decoration. Sometimes an artist will purchase them to carve into magical displays. Other people carve them into boats and hold giant pumpkin regattas. The rest end up rotting in the mulch pile.
The one thing you won’t see is a giant pumpkin pie, since unlike sugar pumpkins, these behemoths don’t make for good eating.
To achieve peak size, growers need to figure out a method that works for them. This may involve a certain kind of fertilizer, soil, sprinkler system, amount of time spent in a greenhouse versus outside, and even music. Lancaster remembers years ago that some of his peers swore that playing jazz helped their pumpkins grow. “We all have a tendency to talk to our pumpkins, whether it’s out loud or under our breath,” he adds. “That’s pretty much universal. There seems to be this connection that…you really treat them like a baby.”
There are also some basic rules to help growers achieve maximum size. Genetics is foremost. “The only true giant pumpkin is the Atlantic Giant Pumpkin,” Lancaster points out. In the late ‘60s to early ‘70s, a grower from Nova Scotia named Howard Dill went around to different growers and weigh-offs, collecting seeds and cross-pollinating plants until he came up with the Dill Atlantic Giant (known as the Atlantic Giant once his patent expired). Another factor is climate, since pumpkins don’t do well in extremely hot or cold weather.
Which is why these gentle giants tend to grow better in the northern states. Unfortunately, this past summer took its toll on the fruits of the NEGPGA’s labor. “It was going to be a banner year,” surmises Lancaster, with at least four pumpkins on track to grow to over 2000 pounds. But high heat and humidity across New England caused the pumpkins to deteriorate. While disappointing, these are the types of challenges that extreme gardeners seem to take in stride.
“We may not see as many big pumpkins in New England as we did last year,” Lancaster reflects. But, it goes without saying: there’s always next year.
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