A thousand pounder is a whole lotta squash

My neighbor David Hampton finally made it into the 1,000 Pound Club last year, realizing a personal milestone that he'd been chasing for the last decade.  His 1013 pound (460 kg) vegetable took six strong men to transport from his garden to a truck and thence to the Topsfield Fair for the competition.  2003 was a tough year for giant pumpkins.  The almost unprecedented rain this summer was good for most farmers, but hard on pumpkins.

Mr. Hampton has been growing giant pumpkins for the last ten years.  At first it was a joke, then it became a hobby, and now it was an obsession.  He wanted into the 1,000 Pound Club in the worst way and now that he'd achieved that goal, he was after the ultimate victory — first prize at the Pennsylvania Giant Pumpkin Contest1 in Altoona later this month.  Despite David's efforts It's probably not in the cards this year because of the rain. Next year perhaps. 

David Hampton is among the top contenders in this unusual contest.  Like many things, it has grown dramatically in sophistication over recent years and serious pumpkin growers now plot their strategies with an almost military precision.  They have to, if they want to win the prize.  Performance pressure is the order of the day in giant pumpkins.  Consider this; in 1993 the prize winning pumpkin at the Topsfield Fair was 560 pounds (255 kg), in 2002, the winning vegetable tipped the scales at 1337 pounds (607 kg)!  This year there are rumors of a monster pumpkin in Niagara Falls with an estimated weight of 1500 pounds2.  These spectacular gains come as a result of dedication to the task and careful attention to detail.

How do you grow a giant pumpkin?

Growing giant pumpkins is a year round task beginning with the acquisition of special seeds. Giant pumpkin seed can be stored for years and are hoarded jealously by enthusiasts. Champion seeds are often sold at auction fetching prices as high as $400. For those who aren't yet connected to the giant pumpkin inner circle, good seeds for beginners can be obtained from Howard Dill or the P&P Seed Company. The seeds are germinated indoors in late April or early May using a heating pad to regulate the temperature as the young plants develop.  Once the weather warms, the seedlings are moved outside to the pumpkin patch. Plastic sheeting is often used to create a removable cover for protection in the event of a late frost. 

The hallowed ground of the Pumpkin Patch is a minimum 30 foot diameter circle commonly prepared with a cover crop of winter rye that is tilled in with extra cow manure, chicken droppings and other soil amendments prior to planting.  The pH of the soil should be adjusted to between 6.5 and 6.8 by using lime to raise the pH or sulfur to lower it.  The goal is a well drained, pH balanced, highly enriched soil. We're not talking xeriscape here, this is pampered dirt.

Once the pumpkin vines have taken hold, most growers use a liquid fertilizer to feed the plant and keep the growth on track.  Initially, phosphorous is emphasized to stimulate healthy root growth.  This is gradually shifted towards a balanced formula with increased nitrogen.  After a couple of months, when it's time for the fruit to set, a switch is made to a high potassium mixture that allows for the optimal development of the fruit. Prior to setting fruit, the vines are "mounded" or covered with dirt as they grow.  This causes them to continue growing away from the primary stalk and to set out additional root systems, providing the plant with greater access to nutrients from the soil.  Most prize winning pumpkins are formed 10 feet or more from the place the original seedling was planted.

After eight to ten weeks of growth, female flowers will begin to appear on the vines.  They look like little pumpkins because that's exactly what they are.  The male flower has a long thin stem with the flower perched at the top.  Serious pumpkin growers get really excited when these begin to appear.  It's showtime, and the earlier you set the prize pumpkin, the more time it has to grow before harvest. Since these giants can gain between 20 and 30 pounds per day, every day counts if you are going for the gold.

Pumpkin sex

Pollination is too important to leave to chance so, just like purebred horses, giant pumpkin flowers are pollinated by hand.  A newly opened female flower is selected at least ten feet from the primary stem and its stigma is gently hand pollinated with the pollen-laden stamen of a healthy male flower.  After pollination, the female flower is often tied closed so that it can't be contaminated by bees with the lesser pollen of surrounding pumpkins. 

As the small pumpkins begin to grow, it is important to plan for the endgame.  One concern is maneuvering the pumpkin such that the stem is perpendicular to the vine.  This allows the pumpkin to grow without damaging the vine or breaking its own stem.  Another concern is pruning the vines and selecting the most likely candidate pumpkins.  Each plant may put out several vines and half a dozen or so pumpkins could be growing on each vine.  Normally that abundance would be a good problem to have, but if you're going for the record, you need to pick the one that is growing the fastest and has the best overall shape.  Once the Contender has been selected, the other pumpkins are removed and the secondary vines are arranged around the pumpkin to allow room for it to grow.  The main vine is pruned about ten feet past the pumpkin and the secondary vines about eight feet from the root. The ends of all the cut shoots are buried to conserve water. 

The endgame

With all that out of the way, home stretch is visible at last.  Don Langavin, the author of 'How to Grow World Champion Giant Pumpkins,' says "it is best to use high nitrogen fertilizer in the spring to get the roots started, an even base of fertilizer in the middle of the year and high potassium fertilizer in the late summer for fruit growth." In practice, this means that prior to pollination you should be feeding your pumpkin with a formula that stresses phosphorus like 15-30-15.  Once the fruit is set, you should migrate to a more balanced fertilizer like 20-20-20.  In the final growth phase, it's time to pull out the stops and mainline that baby with nitro.  A couple of pounds of water-soluble high potassium fertilizer such as 15-11-29 applied once a week right on through to harvest should do the trick.  Hyper-fertilization is sometimes used by the experts, but it's a risky business as a pumpkin that is growing too fast can actually rip itself free from its vine in an explosion of expansion.3

Other concerns as your prize begins to expand to Jabba the Hutt proportions are shading its delicate skin from the hot sun so it doesn't blister and protecting it from small animals like rabbits, ground squirrels and even deer who will sometimes stomp through the tough pumpkin rind to get to the soft insides.  Some of the top growers position their pumpkins on builders' insulation to cushion it from the ground.  Others pack sand around the base so that any burrowing by animals becomes more obvious.  Even pesty neighbors can be a problem as one grower recounted the time his neighbor sent a cloud of herbicide wafting on the wind as he sprayed the weeds in his yard.  The giant pumpkin downwind was saved only by the level head and quick thinking of the grower's wife who tossed a tarp over the prize vegetable at the last moment.

Most serious giant pumpkin growers are fastidious about charting the growth rate of their plants and their websites often sport daily graphs tallying the pounds and inches as the season progresses. Contrary to a persistent urban legend, the giant pumpkins aren't fed milk to increase their size.  

As the growing season draws to a close in the fall, every grower's thoughts focus on the same question, "how big is it?"  To obtain an estimate of the pumpkin's weight prior to the official weighing at the contest a formula is used. A tape measure is used to measure the size along the top, from side to side and around the widest circumference parallel to the ground.  These measurements are compared to charts with historical data to provide the estimate.4

After the music stops

So, what do you do with a thousand pound squash after the Pumpkin Festival is over?  The idea of converting the behemoth into a mountain of pumpkin pie is daunting and, fortunately, not a likely prospect.  The water content in giant pumpkins is much higher than their diminutive brothers, so they aren't much good for pie.  The seeds from a contest winner on the other hand are highly prized and carefully harvested for sale and future plantings.  Pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin waffles and pumpkin soup are some viable options, but once the family rebels at the thought of orange stuff, the giant pumpkin corpse is basically a great starting point for a compost pile.  The giant melting hulks are also good fodder for Jack-o'-lanterns and  Scary Halloween Stories.

David Hampton's careful planning and attention to detail this season were all thwarted by the high humidity.  His biggest pumpkin this year weighed only 600 pounds, enough to capture every prize a decade ago, but not even big enough to bother entering in the Topsfield Fair this year.  He says that he's taking the next year off from growing giant pumpkins, but watching him lovingly adjust the vines around one of his huge gourds and seeing the gleam of pride in his eye, I kind of doubt it.


1  Giant Pumpkin Resources: http://www.giantpumpkins.com/
2  Pennsylvania Giant Pumpkin Grower's Association: http://www.pgpga.com/
3  How to grow a giant pumpkin: http://www.backyardgardener.com/secert.html
4  How big is it?  http://www.backyardgardener.com/weight.html