One couple’s attempt to win a giant pumpkin competition

The Swensons and their neighbors (it takes a community to raise a 375-pound gourd) enter 'Daisy' in the Fryeburg Fair in rural Maine. Does she win?

By , Correspondent

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    Ode to a gourd: Jim Webb (right) gives a speech before cutting the cord on Steve and Sally Swensons’s 375-pound pumpkin in North Conway, N.H. Some 150 people attended a ‘fairwell’ party, which included jokes, a kazoo-along, and music from the Pumpkinettes.
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In simpler times, people held fairs to get together and show off the livestock they’d raised and the vegetables they’d grown. In Fryeburg, they still do.

Wander west of the commotion of the midway at the Fryeburg Fair and you’ll encounter a matrix of exhibition halls. Inside, sheep bleat and cows stolidly chew their cuds. Quilts hang alongside oil paintings, and jars of pickles catch the light.

For the people who raised the cows or canned the pickles, the fair is what goes on inside these buildings – the prizes awarded, the acknowledgement granted. To them, the fair is all about a single pig or heirloom tomato or a single strawberry-rhubarb pie.

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For Steve and Sally Swenson, it comes down to a giant Atlantic pumpkin named Daisy. She – pumpkins are always female – sits in a picket fence enclosure just inside the agricultural exhibition hall, not far from Old McDonald’s petting barn and the walk-away sundae booth. At 375 pounds, Daisy commands her share of attention from the fairgoers who mill around taking in the displays of baked goods and knitwear.

Recently, two days before Fryeburg began, the Swensons held a “fairwell” party for Daisy and 150 guests in the backyard of their home in North Conway, N.H. The guest of honor – a resplendent orange orb surrounded by 400 square feet of foliage – was serenaded by a women’s barbershop quartet (the Pumpkinettes) and a men’s choir (the Pumpkin Heads).

There were knock-knock jokes, a dog solo, a kazoo-along, and a tribute to the recently deceased Howard Dill, a Nova Scotia purveyor of agricultural products including the seeds known to produce the largest pumpkins in the world.

“It takes a neighborhood to raise a giant pumpkin,” Steve Swenson told the crowd to cheers and applause. Indeed, the Swensons had help with Daisy even before she was a sprout. She was germinated and tended in the early weeks by their friend Ludwig, who has a hospitable indoor environment for the process.

Neighbors fed and watered Daisy while the Swensons were away on vacation. Other friends served as “medical” consultants. At the party, Steve Swenson recounted a conversation between Sally and one of them.

“She told him, ‘Daisy’s oozing from her bellybutton.’ ” He replied that she had her “anatomy all wrong:” The problem was with Daisy’s backside.

•••

2008 was a tough year for pumpkins. All over New England, gourd-type vegetables cracked, burst, and popped after having taken in too much water during an unusually wet summer. Those that made it were smaller than average, often soft or affected by fungus.

Daisy was among the fortunate. She survived the ooze and the weather and woodchucks – mainly through luck and the ministrations of the Swensons, who have been growing Atlantic giants for 10 years and last year won second prize for their entry in the Fryeburg Fair.

In March, the Swensons singled out Daisy from a number of plants. As an only seedling, she was cosseted – fed Miracle Gro, manure tea, and extra potassium along with, every morning, coffee grounds. The grounds, Steve Swenson is convinced, are responsible for her deep, rich color.

She was covered by night and shaded by day with a tarp. Her taproots were severed – carefully, carefully – because taproots can pull down the stem and crack it.

At the proper time, she was hand-pollinated with a Q-tip. “You don’t leave it up to the bees because they could cross-pollinate with a squash,” says Steve Swenson. He and Sally chose “the best-looking male and female,” which is determined by such things as petal vigor and stem angle. Afterwards the female was closed off with a twist-tie so no bees could get to her.

Still, there were tense moments. When Daisy was just a blossom, a hail storm destroyed most of her leaves. It took weeks for her to recover. The rain leached nutrients, and the moisture and humidity threatened diseases.
Not far into the season each year, the Swensons get emotionally involved.

“You can’t help it,” says Sally Swenson. “You put months of work into them. If you’re away and it gets cold, you call a neighbor to cover them with a blanket. If it’s hot, you worry that they’re not getting enough water.”

There’s also the aesthetic factor. “You go outside in the morning and there she is – a golden orb shining in the sun,” says Sally Swenson.

Like her predecessors – Gladys, Bertha, and Agnes – Daisy was named “after she began to develop personality,” says Sally Swenson. In this case, the nascent pumpkin was perfectly round, with a short stem and covered with downy hairs. “She was perky and bubbly, and we knew she’d be good-looking.”

At end of the party, a man who’d won the honor via lottery severed Daisy from her vine. A handful of people loaded her onto a truck using a cargo net borrowed from the Appalachian Mountain Club. Then it was off to the fair.

•••

Fair officials at Fryeburg aren’t always thrilled to see people arrive with their giant gourds. “It’s, ‘Oh no, here come those people with their pumpkins,’ ” says Sally Swenson. “They told us, ‘We don’t want you here until 3 p.m.’ ”

Nevertheless, the Swenson crew was on the road that day at about 1 p.m., eager to get Daisy weighed. There was a certain amount of anxiety. According to Sally Swenson, “It’s stressful to be a debutante pumpkin,” and – she might have added – a grower of a deb.

Still, the Swensons were confident. Given the weather and the unfavorable conditions, they were hopeful they’d grown a winner – determined among giant pumpkins by weight alone.

It was not to be. “As soon as we drove in, we knew we’d been beat again,” says Sally Swenson. Sure enough, when Daisy and her closest rival were weighed along with the others in the over-200-pounds category, that one topped the scales at 425, fully 50 pounds heavier than Daisy.

Daisy wound up with the red ribbon and a $30 premium. The Swensons were disappointed but mindful of not communicating that to their pumpkin. “We told her there’s nothing wrong with being No. 2,” says Sally Swenson. “And she was the most beautiful.”

And so Daisy sits in the agricultural hall, flanked by the clearly smaller third-prize winner and by the taker of first prize, which, it must be acknowledged, is pale and misshapen by comparison.

A boy climbs up onto the bench that backs the picket fence. “That pumpkin looks bigger,” he says of Daisy. “And it’s orange. The one that won isn’t even orange.”

A teenager leans in to take a photo with her cellphone. “Crazy!” she tells a friend. “Imagine trying to move those things around.”

When the fair is over, the livestock carted home, and the rides packed up, Daisy may temporarily wind up on a preschool playground. Then – don’t tell her this – she’ll be cut apart and composted.

As for the Swensons – and neighbors – they’ll have the photos, the red ribbon, and memories of their pumpkin being sung to by a dog.

And the hope of next year.

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