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?
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.