In the Garden: Galvanized by the prospect of growing the world's largest pumpkin, amateur gardeners are devising new strategies involving natural growth hormones, double grafting and more. Here are some of their tips and experiences.
DES MOINES, Iowa — Early one morning about a month ago, Don Young peeled the floral bedsheets off the giant pumpkins growing in his backyard. Tiptoeing around the jungly vines, he carefully checked for holes. Then, bending his ear down over the nearest gourd, which was as high as his gut and wider than a truck tire, he gave it a solid smack and listened intently, like a doctor with a stethoscope.
“This one’s thumping pretty good,” he said with a grin.
Young is one of a number of amateur gardeners whose heart’s desire is to raise a pumpkin bigger than anybody else’s. These enthusiasts have always been obsessed, but now they are especially so. With the current world record at 1,810 pounds (a Smart car, by comparison, weighs 1,600 pounds), these growers can see the most important milestone of all on the horizon: the 1-ton pumpkin. Galvanized by the prospect, they are doubling their efforts and devising a raft of new strategies involving natural growth hormones, double grafting and more, to become the first to reach that goal.
This fall’s pumpkin contests have begun, and as many as 14 amateur growers have won regional weigh-offs with entries tipping the scales at more than 1,500 pounds. The contests are far from over — they continue in force over the next two weekends — but already one pumpkin, raised by Dave Stelts of Edinburg, Pa., has come within 3 pounds of beating the 1,810-pound record set last year. Rumor has it that a record-breaker may emerge in California.
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The extreme summer weather this year has somewhat dampened the prospects of many growers in the Midwest, including Young. Still, he plans to enter a couple of 1,300-pounders in a weigh-off in either Wisconsin or Minnesota this weekend, and true to his hobby’s compulsive form, even as he prepares for those contests he is busy mapping his strategies for next year.
A professional tree trimmer by trade, Young, 47, spends $8,000 a year on his pumpkin hobby, money he admits he does not really have. His modest one-bedroom house is smaller than his backyard.
“If you try to make a living growing pumpkins, you better have something to fall back on,” he said about his day job.
Young has set state pumpkin records in both Iowa and California — in 2009 Conan O’Brien smashed one of his giant pumpkins on television with a monster truck — and he is a leading figure among those who are fashioning new growing practices. He has invented a grafting technique, for instance, that pushes the food and energy of two pumpkin plants into a single fruit. Other top pumpkin competitors are experimenting with ZeoPro, a synthetic cocktail of supernutrients developed by NASA to grow lettuce and other edible plants in space.
This year, several growers have also tested out a pink powder bacteria that converts a plant’s methane output into a natural growth hormone found in seaweed. Called PPFM (or pink-pigmented facultative methylotrophs), the substance is not even on the market, but the lure of the 2,000-pound pumpkin prompted those growers to obtain samples from RTI, the company in Salinas, Calf., testing the bacteria.
“These guys will try absolutely anything to get an edge on their competitors,” said Neil Anderson, the president of RTI.
In fact, growers typically feed their pumpkins a compost “brew” so rich — the water is mixed with worm castings, molasses and liquid kelp — that the fruits can gain as much as 50 pounds a day.
“I like to say we’re just a big bunch of obsessive-compulsive people,” said Stelts, 52, the president of a group of giant-pumpkin enthusiasts called the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth. “The stuff we do to get pumpkins to this size, it’s out of control.”
Sometimes, Young said, he will just sit among his pumpkins.
“This is going to sound really crazy, but when these are really at their peak growth, they’ll make a sound,” he said. “You can feel it. It’s something surging in the pumpkin. Bup. Bup.”
When the season ends, growers like Young often tow their creations to a fairground or botanical garden for display; with walls a foot thick and low sugar content, the pumpkins are not fit for pie. But this inedibility has not deterred contractors, doctors, midwives and other amateurs from growing them.
BigPumpkins.com, the Facebook-like forum of the giant-pumpkin world, now gets more than a million unique hits a month. And according to the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, the number of officially sanctioned weigh-offs has grown from 22 to 92 in seven years, and now includes competitions in Italy, Finland and Australia.
With the right seeds and soil preparations, veterans say, it’s fairly easy to grow an impressively large pumpkin. But the hobby’s elite, while still amateurs, operate on a different playing field. These growers spend hundreds of dollars on laboratory analyses of soil and plant tissues to help them decide whether to add more nitrogen, say, or calcium. And they speed photosynthesis by spraying their plants’ leaves with carbon dioxide.
“We’re taking a natural process and we’ve got complete control over it,” said Steve Connolly, 56, a grower in Sharon, Mass., whose pumpkins consistently rank among the world’s 10 heaviest.
Taking control begins with pollination, a process that growers have wrested from the bees. In early summer, they cross-pollinate the pumpkins themselves, selecting a male flower from one plant and rubbing the pollen onto a female flower from another. Other budding pumpkins are eliminated so that the main vine supports only one plant. As extra vines sprout, they are likewise removed. The patch is more than tended. It is manicured.
But it is the seeds, a strong indicator of a pumpkin’s size, that are the most bankable factor in the quest for giants. Last fall, Chris Stevens, 33, a Wisconsin general contractor who grew the 1,810-pound pumpkin, sold a single seed from it for $1,600, by far the most anyone has ever paid for a pumpkin seed. Its descendants may prove just as valuable.
Seed trading has helped set new world records almost every year since 1997, when a pumpkin first broke the 1,000-pound barrier. The Giant Pumpkin Commonwealth bestows special leather jackets on those who have grown a pumpkin over 1,400 pounds, a club that includes fewer than 50 gardeners. But Stelts said he was raising the minimum to 1,600 pounds because of the escalating competition.
“We’d like to award everybody,” he said. “But you know what? It’s not the Boy Scouts. You’ve got to prove yourself.”
Young keeps his pumpkin trophies, ribbons and plaques in a corner of his living room. Cash winnings are reinvested in his hobby. But there is no award for what may be his greatest accomplishment: dual grafting.
To explain, he crouched in the dirt, pointing to a double stump that he grafted together in his kitchen last winter. Each stump is the size of a beefy forearm, and the root systems bring in twice the nutrients.
“They told me it couldn’t be done, they told me that for years,” said Young, who had to sacrifice 300 pumpkin seeds before he discovered the best way to fuse two young pumpkin sprouts. He borrowed a surgical knife from a hog farmer to shave the stems and then clipped them together with hair barrettes. Soon he and his wife, Julie, had to avoid knocking over pots and heat lamps spread around the kitchen counters.
Next year, he plans to grow all his pumpkins with grafted double sprouts. “With good weather, I can really set the world on fire,” he said. His competitive spirit is also extending beyond pumpkins; he has started to grow championship long gourds that are as thick as a bull snake.
Julie Young, 46, supports her husband’s hobby and has even won a trophy herself for pumpkin growing. “It’s exciting,” she said. “He doesn’t do anything small. He’s all in, like in poker.” She added, “People don’t realize that there’s gardening, then there’s extreme gardening.”
Extreme gardening involves money and sacrifice. Young wakes up in the middle of the night to check his pumpkins. He uses 27,000 gallons of water a month — nearly enough to supply a family of four for a year — and he has 80 sprinkler heads. He runs heat lamps all night after planting seeds in the chilly April ground, and cools his gourds with fans in sweltering midsummer heat. He can’t remember the last time he took a vacation.
Still, for all the work, heartbreak is inevitable. A gardener can pamper his gourds for months and vigilantly stave off rot, disease and bad weather. But sometimes the giant fruits are so juiced up that they do not know how to stop feeding themselves.
Connolly remembers with particular sadness one morning a few years ago when he left his pumpkins to go to church. He was gone for less than an hour, but he returned to find that his biggest pumpkin had exploded under the force of its own growth spurt.
“There was a footlong crack through the rind,” he said. “It just blew up.”