In fall 2012, Rhode Island farmer Ron Wallace made history by becoming the first person to grow a one-ton pumpkin. The 2,009-pound behemoth, which took first-place honors at a weigh-off in Topsfield, Mass., is part of a growing trend (no pun intended) of massive pumpkins.
Growing giant pumpkins is actually a relatively recent pastime. Just 20 years ago, the world record winning pumpkin weighed 493 pounds. That pumpkin was grown by Howard Dill, of Windsor, Nova Scotia, the godfather of giant pumpkins. The Farmers’ Almanac published a profile of Dill, along with instructions for growing monster pumpkins, during the mid-1990s. Just about all giant pumpkins grown today are descended from his patented Atlantic Giants.
Growing giant pumpkins takes a lot of time and commitment, though. With the right mix of light, water and fertilizer, a giant pumpkin can grow as much as 50 pounds in a single day.
In contrast, an average size pumpkin generally weighs up to about 15 pounds and is relatively easy to grow. Though most people tend to buy their Halloween jack-o’-lanterns from the grocery store, growing your own from seed is a fun and simple project for any family with a little bit of land.
There are many varieties of pumpkins. Most pumpkins used for jack-o’-lanterns are Connecticut Field Pumpkins, but there are also pie pumpkins, which are smaller and have a higher sugar content, Jack-Be-Littles, which are miniature pumpkins that are often used as table decorations or for painting, and a number of other varieties.
You can buy your seeds from your local greenhouse, online, get them from another grower, or save them from a pumpkin you buy.
You can sow pumpkin seeds right into the ground starting in about July and have a nice-sized pumpkin by late September. Be sure to use a compost-rich soil and/or add nutrients throughout the growing season using a good organic fertilizer. You can use a commercial variety, or experiment on your own with natural additives such as manure, molasses, gypsum, and maple leaves.
If you’re only growing a couple of fruits, you can even hand pollinate, by rubbing the male flowers onto the female flowers to ensure a good crop. You can tell the difference between male and female flowers, because the females have bulb-shaped stems, while the makes have straight stems.
Pumpkins need a lot of water — their weight is up to 90% water — but, like anything, are easy to over-water. Water whenever the soil is dry or the plant looks droopy, but otherwise, leave it alone. Too much water can create mildew, rot, and other diseases. Once it starts to turn orange, back off of watering somewhat.
Be vigilant about pests. There are an unbelievable number of insects out there who want to sabotage your pumpkin, including aphids, cucumber beetles, squash bugs, and four lined beetles. You can combat these insects by planting companion plants such as onions, leeks, dill, and tansy, or by using an environmentally-friendly natural pesticide.
When the time comes to harvest, you can cut your pumpkin’s stem a few inches from the body of the pumpkin using a good, sharp, pair of shears.
When you’re finished, you may not have something you can use as a boat, like our editor Peter Geiger does each year, but you can save money on Halloween decorations and have a project that the whole family can enjoy.