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Giant Pumpkins: On pace to be contenders

SCGA members Chris Stevens and Lorelee Zywiec measure one of Zywiec’s potential contenders during the organization’s patch tour, Saturday, Aug. 23. They estimated this one to weigh in at 1,300 pounds with a good chance to make at least 1,700 pounds if good conditions persist. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)1 / 9
Members of the St. Croix Growers Association (SCGA) got a close look at the giant pumpkins grown by Chris Stevens and John Hopkins as part of the 2014 Patch Tour. Despite being nearly a month behind due to early drainage problems, these pumpkins weigh in the neighborhood of 400-500 pounds each. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)2 / 9
Joe Ailts, president of the St. Croix Growers Association, said the first big breakthroughs that led to giant pumpkins were understanding soil nutrition and keeping track of genetics. He thinks the next big thing will be hormones. (Photo by Tom Lindfors) 3 / 9
Cracks like these can indicate that a pumpkin is growing too fast. If it isn’t, the cracks will heal and the pumpkin will continue growing. If the cracks get bigger, growth will slow or stop and the pumpkin will have to be destroyed to prevent attracting unwanted insects or animals, which might harm other pumpkins in the patch. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)4 / 9
This giant pumpkin weighs more than 30 times what Nolan Ailts does. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)5 / 9
SCGA member Pete Midthun is feeling good about his chances to grow several pumpkins larger than 1,500 pounds this year. (Photo by Tom Lindfors) 6 / 9
The main vine pumps nutrients and water under high pressure to the chosen giant. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)7 / 9
Grower Chris Stevens explains the importance of keeping the main vine healthy if you expect to grow a world record pumpkin. (Photo by Tom Lindfors) 8 / 9
Each giant pumpkin can require 400 to 900 square feet of patch to provide space for tributary vines needed to meet the demand for water and nutrients to grow at a rate or 25 to 30 pounds per day. (Photo by Tom Lindfors) 9 / 9

Local giant pumpkins were the center of attention Saturday, Aug. 23, when the St. Croix Growers Association (SCGA) conducted its 2014 Patch Tour. The tour started at the patch of John Hopkins and Chris Stevens, and traveled to the patch shared by Pete Midthun and Lorelee Zywiec. About 20 growers ranging in experience from first-year growers to veterans with world records under their belts spent the afternoon sharing advice, talking genetics and trying hard not to make any predictions.

“I don’t want to jinx anything. There’s still a long way to go,” said Zywiec wearing a smile that stretched from ear to ear.

The first stop at the Hopkins/Stevens patch revealed eight giants, heroes in a true comeback story. Despite being nearly a month behind due to early drainage problems, the pumpkins now weigh in the neighborhood of 400-500 pounds each, a testament to the power of genetics and the tenacity of growers Chris Stevens and John Hopkins.

“It’s not out of the question that we could still see several 1,000 pound pumpkins here depending on how the rest of the season finishes up,” Stevens said.

If the first stop was impressive for its recovery, the second at the Midthun/Zywiec patch was breathtaking with giants weighing nearly three times more than the first patch. As if unveiling the latest model at a car show, Midthun and Zywiec removed the sheets used to protect the pumpkins and help keep the hulls moist and elastic revealing what they both hope will be contenders for this year’s biggest pumpkin. Looking across the patch, the lower half of member’s bodies were obscured by giant orange and white hulls three to four feet high.

At this stage, pumpkins are growing rapidly increasing in circumference four to six inches and adding 25-30 pounds a day. As Stevens and Zywiec prepared to measure one of the giants, he told members the biggest threat to growing really big pumpkins is growing too fast. If you can regulate a pumpkin’s growth to remain slow and steady throughout the entire season you have a better chance of growing a real giant. Dramatic growth spurts can lead to splits in the pumpkin’s hull where the pumpkin is literally outgrowing its skin and can actually result in a pumpkin exploding.

A giant pumpkin’s weight is estimated by making three measurements; the circumference of the pumpkins first parallel to the ground around the entire pumpkin, from blossom end to stem; over the top in both directions from ground to ground along the axis from stem to blossom end; and then perpendicular to the stem-blossom-end axis. Add these three measurements together, then multiply by 1.9 to obtain an estimate of the pumpkin’s weight. The first pumpkin Zywiec and Stevens measured was estimated to weigh 1,300 pounds. Stevens expects, with continued good growing conditions, warm humid days and nights, the pumpkin could conservatively add another 400 pounds or more by October.

When asked about the most important discoveries that initially enabled growers to grow the big pumpkins seen today, Joe Ailts, president of the St. Croix Growers Association, answered understanding soil nutrition and keeping track of genetics. What will be the next big breakthrough?

“Hormones. Once we figure out hormones, the sky’s the limit,” said Ailts.

Next up, it is time for the giant pumpkins to turn into carriages as they are harvested and transported to Stillwater for Harvest Fest, Oct. 11, and the world record weigh-in.

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Editor’s Note

This is an installment in a series following members of the St. Croix Growers Association through the growing season as they nurture giant pumpkins. Previous articles throughout the spring and summer documented the progress the pumpkins made. A final installment next month will include coverage of the weigh-off at the 2014 Stillwater Harvest Festival on Oct. 12.

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