Good Life

Over the garden fence: Growing giant pumpkins takes patience, luck

I was asked a question the other day by my friend Merle Barto, who works with us at the Penn State Horticulture Research Farm. Merle was recently watching a program on TV where they were weighing giant pumpkins in a contest held in upstate New York and the winner took home a nice check, almost $10,000, for growing the largest pumpkin. Now this got Merle’s attention, and he wanted to know more about giant pumpkins, as he was thinking about maybe earning some additional spending money by growing them.

Merle is correct that there is considerable prize money being awarded to winners at giant pumpkin contests around the country, where the weights of winning pumpkins are in the 1,200- to almost 1,700-pound mark. That’s right, 1,700 pounds. Try lifting that into the back of your pickup truck.

Recently I read that someone had a pumpkin that weighed in at a new world record of 1,689 pounds. That is a big pumpkin. Moving that requires a pallet and a forklift. Recent winners have said that weather, patience and luck play a role.

Most of the people who I talk to who have attempted to grow giant pumpkins say the seed is the most important thing. The genetic potential for growing a large pumpkin is in the seed. In almost all the contests in the United States and around the world, the Atlantic Giant variety dominates the competitions and all are the descendants of the original Atlantic Giant, bred by Nova Scotian farmer Howard Dill in the 1980s. If you go on the Internet, you can see giant pumpkin seeds for sale. It is almost like horse racing — if you grow a winning giant pumpkin, you can sell the seed just like the stud fee for a winning racehorse.

Use one of the jumbo varieties to grow a giant pumpkin. Plant in early June and allow 150 square feet per hill. Thin to the best one or two plants. High fertility, proper insect, disease and rodent control and shallow cultivation to control competition from weeds are essential. Remove the first two or three female flowers after the plants start to bloom so that the plants grow larger with more leaf surface before setting fruit. Allow a single fruit to develop and pick off all female flowers that develop after this fruit has set on the plant. Do not allow the vine to root down at the joints near this developing fruit because these varieties develop so quickly and so large that they may actually break from the vine as they expand on a vine anchored to the ground. It is important that the pumpkin never lacks for water (drip irrigation is recommended) and you need to care for that pumpkin as if it is a baby while it is growing on the vine.

But is the giant pumpkin really a pumpkin? All squash are members of the Cucurbitaceae family, with further taxonomic divisions of squash, gourds and pumpkins. The small, classical jack-o’-lantern types such as Connecticut Field and Kentucky Field that have a star shaped handle are Cucurbita pepo, while giant pumpkins such as Atlantic Giant and Big Max, which have a round corky handle, are Cucurbita maxima and should more correctly be called winter squash rather than pumpkins. So the giant pumpkins are actually giant squash.