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Giant Pumpkins: Mother Nature pitches a curveball

Compared to the plants in Stevens’ and Hopkins’ patch, the plants in Zywiec and Midthun’s patch have grown substantially over the past month and are much further along. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)1 / 20
Lorelee Zywiec prepares to pollinate one of her chosen pumpkins. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)2 / 20
A young pumpkin several days after pollination. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)3 / 20
Peter Midthun places mill cloth beneath his chosen pumpkin to keep it dry and clean and so it can shift more easily as it grows. An insurance pumpkin can be seen in the background. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)4 / 20
Plants in Stevens’ and Hopkins’ patch show little growth over the past month, suffering from the effects of too much rain and poor drainage. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)5 / 20
Peter Midthun identifies the chosen pumpkin on one of his plants. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)6 / 20
A plant in Stevens’ and Hopkins’ patch shows little growth over the past month, suffering from the effects of too much rain and poor drainage. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)7 / 20
Just after the hoop houses are removed, it is easier for Hopkins to till and spread fertilizer close to the pumpkins without disturbing the roots. (Photo by Tom Lindfors) 8 / 20
An ant’s eye view of a month-old pumpkin plant just after the hoop house has been removed. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)9 / 20
A month-old pumpkin plant just after the hoop house has been removed exhibits leaves already more than 12 inches in diameter. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)10 / 20
Pete Midthun prepares to pollinate his pumpkins using flowers gathered from the plant grown from seed 2328 in Stevens’ patch, the largest pumpkin ever grown. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)11 / 20
Chris Stevens carefully prepares fertilizer before spreading it on his patch in late May. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)12 / 20
Lorelee Zywiec prepares to hand pollinate one of her chosen pumpkins using the stamen from a plant grown from seed 1783, a proven producer of giant pumpkins. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)13 / 20
During hand pollination, Zywiec transfers pollen from the stamen to the lobes on the stigma. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)14 / 20
A female flower has not yet appeared on top of a tiny pumpkin already visible after just six weeks of growth. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)15 / 20
Lorelee Zywiec discusses the finer points of growing giant pumpkins with Chris Stevens in her patch north of New Richmond. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)16 / 20
Chris Stevens inspects the roots on a vine not yet buried. Vines in the background have already been buried. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)17 / 20
Zywiec uses cloth to protect a flower from “open” pollination by a bee or other insect before she can hand pollinate the flower. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)18 / 20
A female flower dramatically opens to reveal a five-lobed stigma. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)19 / 20
After hand pollination, flowers are tied shut to keep rain out, prevent further pollination by insects and ensure the genetics of the new pumpkin. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)20 / 20

More than two months ago, four growers of monster pumpkins — Chris Stevens, John Hopkins, Lorelee Zywiec and Peter Midthun — began a season full of promise, a tale of Cinderella proportions.

That evening in Stevens’ garage, they carefully planted a hand-selected crop of genetically pedigreed seeds in hopes of growing the next world-record jack-o-lantern. In the two months since, Stevens’ outlook might be better characterized as that of Noah and his ark. The record-setting deluge of rain that has people talking statewide has taken its toll on Hopkins’ and Stevens’ dreams and their patch of genetically predisposed monsters. However, the patch of their fellow growers Zywiec and Midthun has benefited from much better drainage and is proceeding on schedule. What remains to be seen is whether Stevens’ patch can recover in time to produce a contender and just how many contenders will emerge in Zywiec’s and Midthun’s patch.

Recap Just after Memorial Day, the hoop houses were removed, revealing eight relatively small plants with leaves 12-14 inches wide and vines stretching out 6-8 feet. Stevens and Hopkins had chosen the new patch location specifically because of its rich soil, high in organic matter. They were busy fertilizing their patch with a combination of seaweed (kelp meal), humic acid and calcium.

“Right when they get out of the hoops, they are still small enough that we can till pretty close and maximize fertilizer spreading without messing with the roots,” Stevens said “We try to spread fertilizer as late as possible so the nutrients stay in the soil longer and so it won’t get washed out by the rain. There will be no more dry fertilizer after today. It will all be spoon feeding after this through the drip irrigation system or by directly spraying the leaves themselves.”

The main vine for each plant can be identified by a series of small croquet-like wire hoops intermittently anchoring the vine to the soil and directing its growth outward toward the edge of the patch.

“Right now, wind is the killer. It can catch the big leaves and snap vines,” Stevens said.

As temperatures begin to heat up toward the end of June and early July, so does work in the patch.

“A month from now becomes the most hectic time of the season. The plants will be growing like crazy while we are trying to bury vines, prune and preparing to pollinate,” Stevens said.

When the temperature begins to regularly hit the mid-80s accompanied by humid conditions, the main vine of each plant will grow up to a foot a day. Soon after, each leaf will generate a flower. Plants will yield many more male flowers than female flowers, which produce the pumpkins. The pollination process requires vigilance because male flowers are only viable for a day.

“Everything looks really good, though we are having some trouble getting the patch to dry out,” Stevens said.

Stevens could not have known how much of a problem the poor drainage of his patch would become.

Monday, June 30 It’s been a month, and Stevens’ patch looks pretty much the same as it did a month earlier — not what he and Hopkins had hoped for.

A disheartened Stevens said, “Our plants have not grown much in about three weeks. It’s not looking good at all here at John’s house. … John and I may end up with little to nothing. It’s looking more and more likely all the time.”

It’s difficult not to hear the disappointment in Stevens’ voice. Farmers have a unique relationship to the land. It requires a special kind of passion tempered by the vagaries of weather, pestilence and disease. When Mother Nature fails to cooperate, despite employing the best science, planting the best seed and nurturing that potential, it hurts. Now Stevens and Hopkins will be challenged to see what they can salvage from their patch given the three-week handicap imposed by the rain.

Meanwhile, spirits at the other patch were running high.

Tuesday, July 1 It’s a beautiful July morning, and all four growers have gathered at Zywiec’s and Midthun’s patch north of New Richmond. In stark contrast to Stevens’ patch, here the main vines are several inches in diameter, and large electric green leaves approaching 20 inches wide mix with brilliant yellow flowers, creating a landscape full of promise.

“It’s a nerve-racking time in the process. You’ve got this big plant you’ve spent all this time on, and you want to make sure you get a pumpkin out of it,” Stevens said.

Despite the less-than-ideal conditions in Stevens’ patch, pollen from the plant generated from seed 2328, the largest pumpkin ever grown, is expected to be in demand by growers from all over the region and as far away as Rhode Island.

Zywiec and Midthun each have five large plants. As many as four of the plants have been pollinated using stamens from 2328 in hopes of growing a new record. For the past four weeks, they have been busy selecting and burying vines in an effort to add roots to the system to support the chosen pumpkin on each plant.

“You don’t sleep great, because you want to get out and bury all the time,” Zywiec said.

Tributary vines are swept outward and upward toward the chosen pumpkin on the main vine using wire hoops and by burying segments of the vine. Ideally, each pumpkin would be supported by at least four tributary vines off each side of the main vine.

“Everywhere you have a leaf, it sends down a root,” Midthun said .

“We never bury more than about three leaves’ worth at a time,” Stevens said. “We like to be able to treat the new roots with bacteria and fungus, which enhance their growth before we bury them. We want to bury vines ahead of those sprouting roots.

“During pollinating we are thinking about which genetics, which plants we want to cross with which, but the plants don’t always cooperate. You might want to pollinate this specific plant, but you go out that morning and there might not be any flowers open, so you might have to pick a different one on the fly,” Stevens said.

Male flowers are slightly narrower than female flowers and are distinguished by their rod-shaped stamens covered in pollen protruding from the center of the flower. Female flowers are slightly wider and conceal a multi-lobed stigma for receiving pollen in the center of the flower. Female flowers are also distinguished by a large, round, berry-sized ovary, the baby pumpkin, just beneath the flower.

“You are going to want to watch this open,” said Zywiec as she knelt alongside one of the female flowers that had been tied shut to prevent accidental pollination. As she gently untied the flower, it instantly began to open, triggered by the sun as if in slow motion.

“That’s about as perfect a flower as you are ever going to see,” Stevens added.

“I’m self-pollinating this plant. You can see five lobes (on the stigma),” said Zywiec as she gently rubbed the stamen against the stigma, transferring the pollen. She finished by retying the flower closed to guard against bees and rain and to ensure the genetics.

“That’s it, the dirty deed is done. This is day one,” Zywiec said.

Success becomes a matter of balancing risk and reward. In a few cases, more than one pumpkin is pollinated as an insurance plan to guard against unforeseen mishaps like a hail storm or an accidental crushing by a passing deer. But in the case of each plant, an ongoing series of decisions must be made all in the pursuit of growing a single giant pumpkin; which vines to terminate, which flowers to choose and how long to allow plants to continue to flower. Hedging bets against disaster costs precious energy and nutrients that would otherwise contribute to the growth of the chosen pumpkin.

“My biggest to date has only been 1,173 pounds. I’m really hoping to get well over 1,500 pounds on quite a few of these plants this year,” Zywiec said .

To grow giants, one must be able to take advantage of every available growing day, and that hasn’t happened for Stevens so far this season.

“I don’t think we have the potential for world class pumpkins anymore. If you’re going to get over 1,800 pounds, you need to have pretty good plants all the way through,” Stevens said.

Despite his setback, Stevens continued to share from his experience with Zywiec and Midthun.

“No matter how much rain we get, starting about day 20 after pollination, you have to water. It’s not because you need the water, it’s because you need the consistency. You don’t want the growth of the pumpkin to speed up and then slow down,” Stevens cautioned.

All of the investment in time, science and diligence is about to take tangible form in the shape of a pumpkin. Stevens predicts with Zywiec’s and Midthun’s opportunity to pollinate early this season, and if the weather cooperates, they should see pumpkins in the 750-pound range by the end of July.


Editor’s Note

This is the second installment of a series following members of the St. Croix Growers Association through the growing season as they nurture giant pumpkins. Additional articles throughout the summer will document the progress the pumpkins make culminating at a weigh-off at the 2014 Stillwater Harvest Festival on Oct. 12.