Growing Great Pumpkins

Featured Article, Gardening, Home & Family
on October 7, 2014
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Jack LaRue, 53, pulls on his rubber shoes and walks into his garden in Tenino, Wash. (pop. 1,447). He gently lifts a plate-sized leaf and admires a light-colored orange pumpkin the size of a boulder bursting from the vine below.

If all goes well, the 300-pound monster, one of 22 pumpkins in LaRue’s 400-square-foot patch, could become a 1,000-pound jack-o’-lantern by Halloween. Carefully, LaRue slides a tarp over the pumpkin’s skin to shield it from the 90-degree heat. A minute later, he turns on the sprinklers, soaking the ground beneath the tangle of vines, which deliver water and nutrients to the developing giants.

That kind of pumpkin pampering helped LaRue grow a U.S. record-setting 1,420-pound pumpkin last year, and established him as one of the top giant pumpkin growers in the world.

“What you don’t want to see is somebody getting lucky,” says Howard Dill, a grower in Nova Scotia, Canada, who developed the Atlantic Giant seed variety that produced the king-sized squash. “You want people who are growing 800 to 900-pounders every year. Jack does that.”

In October, LaRue and pumpkin growers from around the world will weigh their 2005 crop at scores of regional competitions. The weights of the largest pumpkins will be compared, and the name of the grower with the heaviest pumpkin will be added to the record books.

Canadian Al Eaton’s 1,446-pound pumpkin set the world record last year. A year earlier, Bruce Whittier, of Henniker, N.H. (pop. 4,433), grew an eye-popping 1,458-pound pumpkin, though it was disqualified because it had a hole that penetrated to its core.

LaRue expects a pumpkin—maybe even one of his—to tip the scales at 1,500 pounds in the next few years. And he’s motivated by the challenge of growing the gargantuan fruit.

A native of Spokane, Wash., LaRue always has had a green thumb. He cultivated blue-ribbon produce for county fairs as a teenager and became passionate about growing pumpkins in the 1990s after meeting a man selling oversized ones along the side of the road.

Like others in the community of giant pumpkin growers, LaRue is willing to share the secrets of his success. The biggest pumpkins begin with the best seeds, says LaRue, who toils in his garden after work as a commodities inspector for the Washington State Department of Agriculture. Growers trade seed stock each winter, and LaRue has collected and catalogued thousands of seeds. He chooses which seeds to plant based on the characteristics—size, shape, color, stem length and thickness of skin—of its parent pumpkin.

Before planting, around the end of April, LaRue soaks the seeds in water for an hour and then places them in containers filled with soil preheated to 88 degrees. The containers are warmed on heating pads until the seeds sprout, typically within 72 hours. Then the plants are transplanted into the garden.

When the pumpkin plants bloom, LaRue places the pollen from male flowers onto the lobes of female flowers and covers the blossoms to prevent bees and other bugs from introducing pollen from other plants

Then he monitors the pumpkins’ growth. At their peak in August, giant pumpkins can grow more than 25 pounds a day. If necessary, LaRue shifts the vines so they aren’t crushed by the new growth. He, and sometimes his wife Sherry, also weed the garden, water the plants as often as four times a day, and guard them against aphids and other pests. Towels soaked in a calcium solution are stretched over the pumpkins’ hides to help thicken their skin and to prevent holes that can disqualify them from competition.

And then he waits, with fingers crossed, hoping that he’ll have a pumpkin to put on the scales in October.

“A grower can make his own luck to some degree,” LaRue says. “However, Mother Nature has the final word. A grower can do everything right and get last place or a new world record.”

He adds: “I want to grow a world record, but mostly I just enjoy watching these things grow.”

Visit www.pumpkinnook.com to learn more about growing giant pumpkins.

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