Friday, March 28, 2008

To pick this fruit, you need a forklift

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, fruits, competitions

Here's a pumpkin that'll make 100 pies – it weighs 100 pounds (45 kg). OK, once you remove ten pounds of seeds and fiber it'll make 90 pies.

How do you grow a big pumpkin? This isn't really that big. The pale color indicates it is a very young Giant Pumpkin (not the Great Pumpkin, Linus...just a giant one). And you have to start with the right genetics.

Seeds from Dill's Atlantic Giant variety are a good place to start. In a backyard garden, the plant will be cramped for space, but should have no trouble producing a 300 pound (136 kg) fruit.

Give your vine more space, say 800-1000 square feet (75-95 sq m), and spend a bit on fungicides and pesticides, and the same seed can produce a 650-pounder (295 kg) like this one.

The man has his arms around it so he can "thump" it to see how solid it is. Pumpkins are around half air when ripe, and some are airier than others. That makes it hard to tell the weight from the size.

This image and the prior one were cropped to conceal the identity of the two men posing with their pumpkins.

If you want to approach, or surpass a half-ton (1,000 lbs or 454 kg), you need better genetics than stock Atlantic Giant seeds provide. Get involved with the people who communicate via and sooner or later you'll be able to buy or beg seeds from a pumpkin that weighed as much as a VW bug. These obsessive Growers do their own cross-breeding of the biggest of the biggest Atlantic Giant stock, and keep meticulous records. Certain seeds go for $400 and up at auction...that's each!

In Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever, Susan Warren reports on the lives and hard times of a few dozen men, women, and couples who grow pumpkins you could get inside of. Ms Warren got to know these growers of the earth's largest fruit, and followed a bunch of them around for the 2006 growing and contest season.

She was fortunate to witness the weigh-in of several of the largest pumpkins of 2006, including Ron Wallace's 1,502 pound (681 kg) monster, the first pumpkin to officially surpass 1,500 lbs. That record was made at the Frerich Farm weigh-in near Warren, Rhode Island. The Rhode Island club, the Southern New England Giant Pumpkin Growers, hosted the event; they've become a force to reckon with in recent years among gourd growers.

Ron and his father Dick have been growing these giants for more than a decade now. Prior to 2006 they'd had more bad luck than good, but it seems everyone else had the bad luck that year, while they turned in three of the four largest pumpkins ever grown, at different weigh-ins.

Pumpkins over a half ton are notorious for "weighing light". There is a recognized method for measuring across the top of a pumpkin in three directions so as to calculate its weight. The "tape weight" is only a rough measure, however, and there seems to be a much greater margin of error for the largest fruits.

I've used that word three times now...pumpkins are fruits, even though we don't typically think of them so. They aren't apples, after all. But "vegetable" is formally confined in meaning to the stems, roots and leaves of a plant, while the seed-bearing organ is a fruit. Squash, including pumpkins, are fruits.

Well, records are made to be broken. Ron Wallace's good friend Joe Jutras boosted the record another 187 pounds in 2007 to set a new record of 1,689 lbs (766 kg). Behind Joe's pumpkin you can see several others that weighed less, but some came rather close. "1500" seems to be the new standard, and everyone is now thinking of trying for a full ton.

So how do you get a one-ton fruit to the weigh-in? An engine hoist is too small; you need a heavy tractor with a crane attachment to get it into a large pickup truck...put a pallet into the truck bed first. At the weigh-in, it is going to be picked out with a forklift, and set onto the scale by forklift.

2006 was a tough year for the Southern New England club. Tons of early rain, too hot, too wet, too dry, or just too everything, and still the pumpkins grew. By contest season, late September and early October, however, many growers had lost all their fruit to various rots, parasites, and other hazards faced by their fragile giants. Yet it was still a year for several folks to bring personal-record fruit to be weighed.

As I read, I wondered at Ms Warren's good fortune. But I soon realized, she took care to gather material from three major pumpkin-growing regions: New England, Ohio Valley, and coastal Oregon. The record fruit of the year, and perhaps a record pumpkin, was sure to come from one of those areas. If you collect enough stories, you have the pieces you need to tailor a narrative to follow the fellow who finally wins.

1 comment:

Unexpected Reviewer said...

I really appreciate your use of pictures. As a matter of fact, I appreciate everything about your blog, including your depth of interest and honest combination of the objective and the subjective. This was an enlightening entry, as I just read a work of fiction about a giant pumpkin grower, and I enjoyed knowing a little more about the sport(?) .