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.
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.
• • •
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.
This year, Young knew right away that he had a superstar on his hands. By late July, his main pumpkin was about 500 pounds and adding as much as 50 pounds a day. That high-growth period is the most dangerous time: It's possible a big pumpkin will fatten too fast and crack, even explode. "I can control the growth, somewhat, by less watering," he says. Still, "you're on the edge of stretching that pumpkin as fast as it will grow, and some of them can't handle it."
Young starts his pumpkin patch in the first week of May with four or five seeds. They produce a series of vines, which he arranges around a main vine using bamboo sticks. In the last week of June, he allows five of the largest vines to grow one female flower, which he pollinates to start growing actual pumpkins. Once the pumpkins are about the size of a volleyball, he'll pick out the one maturing the fastest. If any other flowers sprout, he pinches them off.
Besides the "big guy," Young was growing four other girthful gourds this year. But by early August, problems had surfaced in the litter: One pumpkin just stopped growing at 500 pounds. Then, Young found a massive crack in a 900 pounder. Soon another one split, too. Cracks disqualify pumpkins from competition because they make it possible for a grower to add liquid to increase their weight.
By mid-August, Young was beginning to worry. Last year, he didn't have a pumpkin to enter in the big competition in Anamosa because they had all cracked or exploded. This year, he was down to two, with more than eight weeks until the weigh-in for the festival. When a pumpkin cracks, "you start kicking, stomping your feet," he says. "I could grow all of them real easy like, and come up with a 300-pounder without the fear of cracking it. But that won't win anything."
• • •
Giant pumpkin contests are becoming as prevalent as cobwebs in the attic. As more growers enter competitions in Europe and North America, the prizes are getting richer. The purse for winning the Anamosa Pumpkin Festival – Iowa's Super Bowl of gourd growing – has almost doubled in the last five years to $6,750.
The event is certified by the governing body of big-pumpkin growing, the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth. The GPC holds a special ceremony to recognize its champions, presenting the world record setter with an orange jacket. "I'm going to get that world record," says Young.
Before he makes room in his closet, though, he might want to glance across the garden. Young doesn't just face competition from his fellow growers. His wife is vying for the title, too. Julie Young started growing pumpkins after watching her husband become immersed in the intricacies of the hobby. "It would be great to have a woman get a world record in pumpkin growing," she says. In just two years, she's produced a 800-pound and an 1,102-pound pumpkin, which took second place at this year's Iowa State Fair. "I'm a quick study," she says.
Five days before Anamosa, Don Young's "big guy" outgrew the measuring system growers use to estimate a pumpkin's weight. It was off the scale. All he knew was that it should weigh more than 1,500 pounds – the world record stood at 1,689 pounds. On Oct. 5, he cut it off the vine and hoisted it onto a special pallet. The next day he drove it on a trailer to Anamosa. After he won the competition, Young found out he was 27 pounds shy of the record, an honor claimed by a Rhode Islander. His fellow growers asked why he didn't leave it on the vine for another week, even another day. Young shrugs. "I got every pound I could."