Giant Pumpkins: It starts from a seed
Her fairy godmother smiled and said, “Well, run into the garden and bring me a pumpkin.”
New Richmond giant pumpkin grower Chris Stevens knows a little something about growing pumpkins large enough to become coaches, but he swears no magic is involved. Pumpkins, which are native to North America, are cultivars, varieties of plants that have been created or selected intentionally and maintained through cultivation.
Stevens set what was once the Guinness World Record for the biggest pumpkin in 2010 at the Stillwater Harvest Festival with a 1,810.8-pound squash. Technically, all of the giant pumpkins grown competitively are actually squash, Cucurbita maxima, to be precise.
That genetics key to growing a record-setting jack-o-lantern were forefront in the minds of Lorelee Zywiec, Peter Midthun and John Hopkins the night they joined Chris Stevens in his garage to plant the seeds for what they each hope will be the next world record squash.
“Joe Ailts got me started simply because I was amazed by what I saw in his garden. How can you not be fascinated with a giant pumpkin?” Stevens said.
Ailts, a grower from the Town of Stanton, won his first statewide competition in 2003 with a 1,056-pound giant.
If you haven’t guessed already, this is not casual farming. It is competitive and requires that growers educate themselves about everything from pumpkin genetics to planting techniques to the impact of weather, pests and disease. All four growers take this endeavor seriously to the point where they emphasize that the patches where their giants will be grown must remain secret.
The table is covered with an assortment of ice cube trays and pitchers filled with an ice tea colored liquid consisting of fish, seaweed and humic acid. A library of individual seeds are kept in tiny envelopes captioned with the genetic heritage of each seed. “1779 J. Werner 2013, 1623 Wallace F, 1756 Lancaster M, 15% Heavy” reads one envelope.
1779, 1623 and 1756 are the weights of each contributing pumpkin. J. Werner, Wallace and Lancaster are the growers names. M and F refer to the male and female contributors,” Stevens explained.
Ron Wallace is a legendary name in pumpkin circles. A grower from Rhode Island, he’s registered many giant winners including his 2009 monster, the first to break the one-ton mark weighing in at 2009 pounds. 15% heavy refers to a pumpkin that weighed 15 percent more than estimated.
Some envelopes are tattooed with the logos of growers adding to their notoriety among seed traders. Worldwide online seed trading has exploded in recent years resulting in rapid growth in both giant pumpkins and competitive weigh-offs. According to BigPumpkins.com, Great Pumpkin Commonwealth (GPC) sanctioned weigh-offs worldwide have increased from a hand full in 1999 to 92 as of 2013 including competitions as far away as Finland, Japan, Switzerland, Slovenia and Australia.
“We do not sell seeds for personal gain. My 1810 seed sold at auction for $1,600,” Stevens said. Much of that money gets donated to the St. Croix Growers Association (SCGA), the club to which all four growers belong. Through its website, the SCGA makes a variety of different seed packs available ranging from $12 for a “Starter Pack” up to $125 for the “2013 SCGA Promo Pack,” which includes an assortment of winning seeds from nine member growers, including Stevens. The money goes toward paying for educational materials and programs to help both established and novice growers increase their odds for growing really big pumpkins. It also funds Harvest Fest, an annual fall festival held in Stillwater, Minn., where growers from around the Midwest transport their giants to compete for the title of world’s biggest pumpkin. Record-breaking pumpkins are officially recognized by the GPC, the organization responsible for “establishing standards and regulations ensuring quality of fruit, fairness of competition, recognition of achievement, fellowship and education for all participating growers and weigh-off sites.”
Locally, member benefits of the SCGA include tips and informative articles provided in The Vine, the club’s newsletter, discounted growing supplies, priority access to seed packages and free unlimited entries at the Harvest Fest weigh-off.
An agonizingly long winter has led to an acute air of anticipation as Stevens and his fellow growers prepare to plant selected seeds they hope will produce the next world record pumpkin. Each seed is carefully sanded at the seam and then briefly soaked in an ice cube tray compartment filled with the tea colored elixir. Sanding the seam and softening the husk in the nutrient bath makes it easier for the husk to open and leaves to sprout once it is planted. Seeds are planted about an inch below the surface in a variety of containers all about one quart in size. The potting mixture is enriched with mycorrhizal fungi and beneficial bacteria and just ever so slightly moistened with water.
Stevens points out that they will be planting about 20 seeds total that night. He plants his No. 1 picks, but holds a few seeds in reserve in case something, in most cases the weather, destroys the first batch of plants. The planted seeds will be incubated for about one week or until the leaves have broken the surface and the roots are pushing against the bottom of the container. At this point, it seemed only appropriate to share some sort of secret handshake or maybe dance a lucky jig to send the chosen seeds and all the hopes of their growers on their way.
Little more than a week later, Stevens arrives at the undisclosed location of this year’s patch, a virgin plot of soil he shares with fellow grower John Hopkins. The plot measures about 7,200 square feet, allotting 900 square feet for each giant pumpkin. Eight hoop houses are strategically positioned in two flights down the center of the patch. The recent stretch of cool, wet weather has hindered efforts to get the plants in the ground, but time is of the essence when it comes to growing big pumpkins, and every day of the season is needed for these giants to reach their full potential.
Stevens and Hopkins have used the week in between to prepare the soil making sure to rinse their tools in bleach before working the soil to minimize the introduction of any disease.
“This is our first year using this new patch,” Stevens says pointing in the direction of the old patch several hundred feet away. “It’s exciting both for its lack of contamination and it’s fertility,” Stevens adds.
Each hoop house is about 6 feet long by 3 feet wide, constructed of three flexible plastic tubes arched across the three foot span with one at each end and another in the middle. The hoops are attached to a wood framed base and covered in plastic sheeting. Each end is also closed with plastic cut to match the arch of the hoops and attached with removal spring clamps. Each hoop house sits atop soil which is heated with an electric cable buried 6 inches beneath the surface used to keep the house at a steady 80-85 degrees during the day. At night the plants are covered with a styrofoam box to protect against cooler temperatures. Each day the boxes must be removed to allow the plants access to sunlight and moisture created by condensation.
Stevens carefully transplants each baby pumpkin plant to a house. He digs a hole 8 inches deep and wide enough to accept the root ball at one end of the house about a foot from the entrance. As he tucks each plant in, he slightly angles the leaves toward the far end of the house.
“This encourages the vines to grow toward the long end of the house and eventually out toward the edge of plot once the houses are removed,” Stevens explained.
Great care is taken to walk on a system of planks laid out to connect the community of hoop houses to avoid compacting the soil unnecessarily.
If all goes as expected and the weather cooperates, the houses should be filled with vines in about one month. The houses will be removed allowing the plants to really start spreading out. Once the flowers appear in early June, Stevens and Hopkins will begin pollinating.
“Everything is hand pollinated. We paint the pollen from the male flowers directly onto the female flower parts,” Stevens said.
All of the flowers, other than the chosen ones, will be cut away concentrating the plant’s energy on those specific vines. After that, it becomes all about those few lucky pumpkins. Come July and August, these monsters will grow up to 30 pounds a day. Stay tuned, fairy godmother or not, the big pumpkins are just getting started!