Recently I attended a meeting of the Franklin County Giant Pumpkin Growers Association who haven’t yet, done all of these things, but they are in touch with other growers across the country who do. They also trade a lot of information and seeds, and probably swap a few lies along the way.
The competitive spirit isn’t always the first thing that gets these growers going. Denis Brennen of Northfield said he’s been growing giant pumpkins since 1985. “Somehow I got some giant pumpkin seeds and put them in the garden. They grew. I took my pumpkin to the Fair and it weighed in at 235 pounds, and the first prize winner was only 236 pounds! That’s when I got competitive,” he said.
“It’s mostly fun, but if I can beat them I will,” Brennen said with a laugh. “I had my turn as a winner, but then these guys came along,” he said pointing to Art Kaczenski of Erving.
Kaczenski, now president of the FCGPG, admits to being extreme in his desire to grow the biggest pumpkins. He began growing pumpkins with his grandfather when he was a kid gaining a lot of experience. Last year he started each of his 24 different seeds in a separate plastic greenhouse so that they would get the heat and the long season that a giant pumpkin needs.
I asked what a gardener needed to grow giant pumpkins. The response was quick and came from several quarters. “You need space! Each plant will take as much as 500 square feet.” I was told that some can also gain as much as 70 pounds a day.
Since each pumpkin can only be entered in one fair I could see that if you were going to enter several competitions, space is essential.
Of course, you need giant pumpkin seed. Most beginners start with Dill Atlantic Giant seeds, but the members of this club are quick to pull out the family trees of the seeds they are planting. They know the father and the mother of the seeds they are using, having arranged the marriage themselves by bringing the male flower to the female flower. All it takes is a pollen-y kiss and the baby pumpkin is conceived.
Sue Chadwick explained to me that all the weight is in the walls. Giant pumpkin growers get to know which varieties and individual pumpkins have the thickest walls, and they use these in their crosses. She also reminded me that competition is all about weight. No one cares what the pumpkins look like.
Brenner suggests nicking the seed, then putting it in a wet paper towel and a plastic bag. The bagged seed should go somewhere warm like in back of a computer that is always on, and left for a couple of days. In that short a time roots will already start to appear. This gives the seed a headstart when it is planted.
The general consensus of the group was that very little chemical fertilizer should be used. The soil should be rich in organic matter. Compost and aged manure are essential. The ideal pH is 6.8, almost neutral.
Some members plant a cover crop on their pumpkin patch in the fall and till it in in spring. Others add the mycorrhiza fungi (now available commercially) to the soil to increase the important bacterial life in the soil.
All agreed that Neptune’s Harvest is an excellent product for foliar feedings during the season.
And then the race is on. Brenner came close to winning with his 235 pound pumpkin, but nowadays no one in the competitive world gets excited if a pumpkin weighs less than 1000 pounds. The biggest pumpkin ever shown Topsfield Fair was 1689 pounds, grown by Joe Jutras in 2007.
The Topsfield Fair is the superbowl for giant pumpkin growers. The first prize for the biggest pumpkin is $3000. There are 11 other prizes including the Prettiest and Ugliest for a total of about $8000 in prize money.
Several of the Association members have participated in the Big E competitions where the first prize is $550.
Kaczinski says it is clear that the Franklin County Fair is not competitive because its first prize is only $50. Because of this they are not attracting the biggest pumpkins.
The Franklin County Giant Pumpkin Growers Association is interested in promoting the hobby, some say the sport, of growing giant pumpkins, but they are also working to increase the prizes, attract growers of bigger pumpkins, and attract bigger crowds to a big Weigh-off at the Franklin County Fair.
If you or your business wants to donate to the event or become a sponsor of the Franklin County Fair competition. Call Lou Chadwick, 773-3283 or Art Kaczenski, 423-3191.
Gardeners who want to join the group should call Kaczinski for information. He also assures me that if gardeners want to get competitive it is not too late to grow a giant pumpkin. Putting seeds in the soil in late May will still result in a giant pumpkin by fair time. There is also more and more information about growing on-line. All the club members recommend www.bigpumpkins.com.
May 2, 2009