Growing and celebrating giant pumpkins

Photo courtesy of Karan Davis Cutler
Pumpkins aren't just orange and smooth anymore -- white and warted varieties are increasingly common.
Photo courtesy of Karan Davis Cutler
Growing giant pumpkins requires extra labor, including installing shade cloth.

Market gardeners are warning that Vermont pumpkins are small this year, so the state giant pumpkin record —1,392 pounds — probably won’t be broken. Our champion is well short of the pending world record of 1,725 pounds set a week ago, but it’s still large enough to house not only Peter the Pumpkin Eater’s wife but a couple of their kids.

Think twice as heavy as most lawn tractors. Think 127 pounds lighter than a 1967 VW Beetle.

Now that I have fewer trees and more sun, I may try to grow a colossal Cucurbita next season. Online booksellers are stocked with volumes about growing Goliath pumpkins, and the Web also is loaded with how-to advice.

The experts pretty much agree on the basics: Begin seeds indoors (it takes about 135 days to produce a giant pumpkin); pick a spacious outdoor location that gets full sun and keep the weeds pulled; prepare the soil by digging deeply and adding truckloads of composted manure and other organic matter; protect plants from wind; remove all but one fruit from a plant; prune the vines; and water and fertilize constantly. Constantly.

Serious pumpkin competitors do all this and more, including using outdoor electrical heaters; erecting portable greenhouses and installing shade cloth and irrigation systems; pollinating the flowers by hand; placing fruits on protective carpets and turning them.

They also take daily measurements — pumpkins can gain 30 pounds in 24 hours.

You can do all that, but the real secret is in the seeds. The granddaddy of today’s titanic pumpkins, the variety that has won all the prizes since 1979, is ‘Atlantic Giant,' the creation of Nova Scotia farmer and amateur breeder Howard Dill.

Mr. Dill died in 2008, but his steroidal seeds live on. Their cost depends on the size of the pumpkin they came from – with two seeds from 1,000-plus-pound pumpkins priced at $12.

For successful pumpkin competitors, the payback is considerable. In addition to county fairs and local contests awarding prizes in the $250 to $500 range, there are richer treasuries to mine.

The Indiana State Fair offered $1,000 for the largest pumpkin this year; $1,200 was the first-place prize in Stillwater, Minn.; and the winner of the 2009 World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-off in Half Moon, Calif., will get about $6 a pound, which ain’t chicken feed, as my mother used to say.

Although pumpkins are a thoroughly American crop, the British seed company Thompson & Morgan is offering £10,000 in 2009 for any British pumpkin grower who breaks the world record.

There are scores of pumpkin celebrations held throughout the US, featuring not only weigh-offs, but carving and painting contests, pumpkin-chucking events, pumpkin T shirts, pumpkin crafts, and pumpkin foods (pancakes, popovers, breads, muffins, pies, cakes, biscuits, soup, ice cream, and more).

One of the best is the Cooperstown (N.Y.) PumpkinFest, which offers $2,500 for the heaviest pumpkin and culminates in a Great Pumpkin Regatta on Otsego Lake.

Pumpkin regattas are catching on, probably because the giant fruits aren’t good for much beyond bragging rights. They’re way too big to set on the front steps of your house, they’re not especially edible, and they’re too thick and tough to carve without power tools.

I don’t expect to be boating on Lake Champlain in a 1,000-pound pumpkin next fall, but I am going to keep checking in with the online community The common wisdom is that all I need are good seeds, good soil, and good fortune.

I’d add to that list 10 good friends — to haul the pumpkin out of the garden.

Karan Davis Cutler, a former magazine editor and newspaper columnist, is the author of scores of garden articles and more than a dozen books, including “Burpee - The Complete Flower Gardener” and “Herb Gardening for Dummies.” She now struggles to garden in the unyieldingly dense clay of Addison County, Vermont, on the shore of Lake Champlain, where she is working on a book about gardening to attract birds and other wildlife. She will be blogging regularly for Diggin’ It.

Editor’s note: To read more posts by Karan, see our blog archive. The Monitor’s main gardening page offers articles on many gardening topics. See also our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest.

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