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Growing GIANT Pumpkins

It must have been a big year for big pumpkins.

Last fall, Jim Beauchemin, from Goffstown, N.H., had the largest pumpkin at the Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts. The entry, delivered by cargo net and forklift, weighed 1,314.8 pounds. The Topsfield Fair is the oldest and most prestigious weigh-in in the country, and having the biggest pumpkin there is a feather in the winner’s cap.

But less than two weeks later, Larry Checkon of North Cambria, Pa., set a new world record with a 1,469-pound orange monster at the Pennsylvania Giant Pumpkin Growers Weigh-Off in October.

“My pumpkin was officially the eighth largest in the world last year,” Beauchemin said.

That’s according to the Giant Pumpkin Commonwealth, a group composed of 23 official weigh-off sites across the United States.

Twenty years ago, when the Topsfield weigh-in started, 400-pound pumpkins were gigantic. The growth since is testimony to the power of diligent hobbyists pursuing their passion.

Beauchemin doesn’t claim to be a pumpkin grower in the farming sense, but it’s been his hobby for several years. He’s on the board of directors of the New Hampshire Giant Pumpkin Growers Association, formed in 1999, and he helped start the 700 Club in the mid-1990s – when 700 pounds was a huge pumpkin.

“When I started growing pumpkins, 400 pounds was big,” he said. “We might have to change the name to the 800 Club.”

Now, it takes a thousand-pound entry every year or two for a person to be recognized as a heavy hitter in the world of giant pumpkins, he said.

He’s gotten recognition, though. Last year, he spoke at the Empire State Fruit and Vegetable Expo, and he will speak Feb. 1 at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Hershey, Pa.

With farm markets all the rage these days, Beauchemin said farmers are showing interest in growing a giant pumpkin or two to draw customers to fields full of smaller ones. Putting a huge pumpkin by the farm gate or the pumpkin patch is a good way to attract people.

“Nothing’s more fascinating than a mammoth orange pumpkin,” he said. “It just naturally brings a smile to a kid’s face.”

He found that out last fall, when he and his pumpkin spent 10 days at the fair before it was carved into a huge jack-o’-lantern.

“People at the fair say the two most common questions kids ask are ‘Where’s the bathroom?’ and ‘Where are the big pumpkins?’” he said.

The world of big pumpkins is characterized by an odd mixture of competitiveness and camaraderie. While growers take great pride in growing the pumpkins and developing and saving their own seeds, they freely trade the seeds and information about big pumpkin culture. Beauchemin gives away free seeds to all who attend his talks at the fruit and vegetable shows. The competitiveness is more like golf than hockey, with each person trying to achieve his personal best score.

“Growers in this hobby take great pride in their accomplishments,” he said. “And should you be lucky enough to come out on top, you get to enjoy bragging rights until the next growing season.”

His garden – in which pumpkins are the only crop – is about 4,000 square feet, enough to plant six plants in a configuration designed to give each plant 600 to 800 square feet of room to grow.

Pumpkins like warm days and cool nights, he said, making New England a good place to grow them. Normally, pumpkins are planted late, after the soil is thoroughly warm, but to make the best of the growing season, growers make some modifications.

Jim plants seeds indoors in April and moves plants outdoors the first week of May, before frost danger has passed or soil is warm. Plants are covered with small greenhouses, and heating coils are buried to keep soil temperature above 63 ºF.

By the first week of June, plants will have main vines six feet long, he said.

“Vine management will become critical by early June,” he said. “The main vine will begin to run, and this is when every other secondary vine should be pruned off on both sides of the main vine.”

While half the secondary shoots off the main vine are kept, they are dead-ended at 15 feet and tertiary shoots are pruned away. The main vine is allowed to grow 30 to 35 feet.

“It is very common practices for growers to bury all side and main vines with topsoil,” he said. “This will promote additional root growth, since vines produce roots at every leaf node. It also helps stabilize the vines on windy days and gives the squash vine borer less exposed vines on which to lay their eggs.”

When flowers appear, male flowers are removed and female flowers are hand-pollinated using pollen from a plant thought to be a good father. Each blossom is treated with the respect due its huge potential. As it puffs up before opening, a rubber band is applied to hold it closed and keep bees out. Then it’s allowed to open, is brushed with pollen and re-tied for a day.

He recommends pollinating every female flower on the main trunk and some on side shoots.

“Choosing the final pumpkin you will keep on the plant will have to be done by the end of July,” he said. “You will have to cull all others.”

Choosing the final pumpkin can be hard.

“I’ve culled 300-pounders,” he said.

Growers sometimes take daily measurements to determine which pumpkin is growing fastest and choose that one.

The plant will pour all its resources into the lone pumpkin. That pumpkin should be 12 feet or so away from the main stump and positioned perpendicular to the vine. He recommends putting two to three inches of screened sand under the pumpkin when it is the size of a basketball and adding more as it gets larger. Some growers choose conveyor belt material, which is porous and slippery.

“Your pumpkin will be growing 20 to 30 pounds a day and will need one or the other,” he said.

When the pumpkin reaches beach-ball size, it needs protection from the elements.

“You will want to build a waterproof shade tent over the pumpkin or at least cover it daily with a light sheet,” he said. “If not shaded, the pumpkin will harden off prematurely and additional growth will be sacrificed. The waterproofing will keep the fruit dry and lessen the possibility of rot or disease.”

Or splitting. When pumpkins are putting on weight at the rate of 35 pounds a day, that’s a big dread. Split fruit are not allowed in competition. Defects in shape are nothing to worry about.

“These are strictly weigh-ins, not beauty contests,” Beauchemin said.

There are many important aspects of growing a giant pumpkin: soil preparation, fertility, weed control, disease control, mice and small critter control, deer and large critter control, insect control. Cucumber beetles and squash vine borers are major insects, and powdery mildew is a major disease.

Beauchemin uses both soil and foliar fertilizers. Potassium is a critical element in fruit formation and growth. He foliarly applies fish-based fertilizers and seaweed extracts every week.

Genetics are a big factor. Most growers trace their seed back to Dill’s Atlantic Giant seed variety, which gave rise to the 1979 world champion pumpkin, which weighed 438.5 pounds.

Beauchemin is in his fourth year of saving his own seed and developing his own special strain.

“I have 10,000 seeds in my basement right now,” he said.

He doesn’t sell seed. He’ll trade with other pumpkin growers or give seeds away, but he’s not selling any, at least for now. Lots of big-pumpkin growers sell seed, and it can be found on the Internet.

Not that Beauchemin is above making money from the project. Last year, he said, he documented the entire growing process, videotaping every week. The footage was edited into an educational video he hopes to sell, using a Web site that is now under development. The name will be http://www.pumpkinjim.com It al.so will contain a fact sheet and address common questions.

The site won’t be revolutionary. The Internet is replete with Web sites for state pumpkin clubs all over the country, and expert advice isn’t hard to find.

Pumpkins aren’t the only kind of cucurbit that can be grown competitively. Beauchemin also grows a big green squash.

“I was going for the world record last year,” he said.

His squash weighed 881 pounds – making it the seventh largest in the world, behind the record size of 1,084 pounds.

But with pumpkins as a model, can 1,500 pounds be far away?

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007