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How an Iowa man grows a 1,600-pound pumpkin

Don Young uses manure, seaweed, and a special 'compost tea' to produce a massive squash that misses the world record by 27 pounds.

By Sean J. MillerCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 31, 2007

Harry Baumert/The Des Moines Register/AP


Des Moines, Iowa

As trick-or-treaters scurry door to door tonight in this east Des Moines neighborhood, they'll find paper ghosts hanging from trees, cobwebs stretched across bushes, and flickering jack-o'-lanterns standing sentinel on front steps. Halfway down the street, they'll come to Don Young's house, which is similarly decorated for the holiday, with one exception.

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Instead of a small jack-o'-lantern, Mr. Young displays the ultimate porcine pumpkin, the sumo wrestler of gourds – a 900-pound colossus that bestrides the porch like Jabba the Hutt. This monster is more than just a Halloween decoration: It's the runt of a litter of über-pumpkins that Young and his wife, Julie, grew in the backyard of their Des Moines bungalow. Young's pumpkin patch, which takes up much of his half-acre lot, is a small slice of Iowa earth dedicated to pushing nature's limits.

"It's extreme gardening," Young says, strolling through the remnants of his pumpkin plot. He stops at a smooth spot in the dirt the size of a minke whale. It's where Young grew the second-largest pumpkin the world has ever seen.

The "big guy," he calls it, weighed in at 1,662 pounds. In the last decade, big-pumpkin growing has gone from a farmer's hobby to a regulated, worldwide competition. The boom in gourds has been fueled mainly by the Internet, which makes seeds and growing advice widely available. This year, nine pumpkins outweighed last year's world record holder. Young's missed being crowned king gourd by only 27 pounds.

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Young is an erudite gardener with a warm, relaxed manner. A professional tree trimmer by trade, he has a ruddy complexion and forearms like Popeye. Though a relative newcomer to pumpkin harvesting, Young has always had a knack for growing things. He figured out how to get tomatoes to ripen early – in the first week of June. He harvested corn by July 4th and grew enviable onions. But, as he puts it, "I got bored with that."

Then one day he saw some giant pumpkin seeds in a store. As he tried to grow them, he realized how un-green his thumb really was: His first pumpkin patch devolved into a tangle of vines. He started combing for insights online. "There are old growers who for decades kept their own little secrets, and they would always win [competitions]," he says. "Now, with the information highway, we all share. You can't be taught this in a classroom."

Young toils in his patch to minimize the risk to his pumpkins and maximize their growth. He shades pumpkins with old sheets to keep sunlight from prematurely ripening their skin and covers their bottoms with a special fabric he got from a pulp mill to ward off burrowing mice.

He tills the soil with manure, compost, and seaweed. He moistens the gourds with rainwater he collects in tanks behind his garage. If he uses city water, he lets it sit for a couple days to dilute the chlorine. He'll also water the pumpkins with a "compost tea" made from molasses and worm castings – a "secret that's been handed down to me from the good growers," he says.

Mark McWilliams, a big-pumpkin grower from Anamosa, Iowa, says Young is fanatical but regarded with a mix of awe and respect. "He's the guy to beat in Iowa right now," he says.