My Wife: “Why are you cutting down tree limbs?”
Me: “I ordered load of compost”
My Wife: “That 18 wheeler isn’t coming in our yard, is it?
The story of Maine’s heaviest pumpkin for 2016 began three years ago on a cool November morning. Soil in the pumpkin patch was not where it needed to be to grow a giant that year. Improvement came in the form of 30 yards of compost trucked down from Cassella Organics in Unity. A steaming pile in the back yard with a distinct odor would follow. It was the talk of the neighborhood that week, but all part of the big picture to grow a big one.
Summer 2015 was a good growing season in Maine. Our family had high hopes of growing a giant pumpkin to compete at Damariscotta Pumpkin Festival and Regatta in October. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had a different idea though. On August 6th, a hail storm ended months of preparation in only five minutes. It was a sad day, but we would be back 2016.
Winter 2016 was a mild one with not much snow in Maine. Spare time was often spent scheming the upcoming pumpkin season. It’s not uncommon for growers to get together, trade seeds, and also ideas during the off season. And yes growers call it an “off season” just like in sports. In many ways giant pumpkin growing is a sport. There’s preparation, strategy, competition, and a game day of sorts. We were ready with high hopes come spring. The soil test looked good, and the only amendments made were 150 lbs of lime and 50 lbs of Sulfate of Potash 00-00-50.
Seeds are typically germinated around April 15th in my basement. My plan this year was to start with 4 seeds with world class genetics. Plants spent most days under grow lights indoors in late April. By May 1st, it was time to go into the ground. The planting area was outfitted with soil heating cables, a hoop house (mini green house), and indoor space heater. I would like to specially thank my father in law Rich for the the space heater as he was cold in spring, but the pumpkin plants stayed nice and warm.
By late June, one plant was way ahead off all the others. It’s seed came from a 1998 lb pumpkin grown by Joe Jutras in Rhode Island the previous year.
My goal is to get a pumpkin pollinated about 10 to 15 feet out on the main vine by July 4th. This plant provided me a pollination on June 29th. Here’s a baby picture, two days later.
There are many strategies pumpkin growers use to get these giant fruit to grow so big. One important one is vine burying. Vines are buried using surrounding soil while a mixture of mycorrhiza, kelp, and humid acid are added at each leaf node. This is a tedious process as each plant typically has hundreds of leaves. The vine burring process also helps stake the vines down to protect the plant from wind damage.
In addition to the nutrients added to the root zone, the plants are also drenched and foliar fed a cocktail each day. Depending on the day, it may consist of fish, seaweed, maple syrup, and/or a balanced 15-5-15 fertilizer. Yes, I do spray maple syrup on the plants diluted to a rate of one ounce per gallon. Molasses has been used in years by pumpkin growers and gardeners in general, but it wasn’t until 2012 I started experimenting with maple syrup. I noticed great results, but it’s important to use Maine maple syrup as VT, NH, and NY syrup doesn’t help grow giant pumpkins. Ha.
As the plant matures in late July, it takes up about 900 square feet in the patch. As you could imagine, that requires a huge amount of water. We irrigate from a deep well fortunately, but during this drought year, I was crossing my fingers pumping around 100 gallons per day per plant.
In late July and early August we knew we had something special on the vine as our biggest pumpkin was putting on 42 lbs per day for 5 days. Those were the biggest gains I’ve ever had in a pumpkin. That estimate is based on a series of measurements taken including circumference, over the top, and side to side.
The pumpkins are shaded during the day to protect the skin from the sun and also to keep it from becoming too hot. Much like in humans, the fruit can get a sunburn!
During the month of September, growth rates slow to only a few pound per day. Most giant pumpkin weigh offs are held in late September and early October for that reason. The final estimate the first weekend of October was 1667 lbs. One of the most common questions I get, is how do you get it out of the patch? We use a lifting tripod I built out of 16′ 4x4s. I use a chain falls with a series of straps to lift the pumpkin. I then drive my trailer under it, and let the pumpkin down gently. The top photo is an example with the straps. It was our Cumberland Fair entry weighing 886 lbs. The bottom photo is that rainy evening we were preparing to hoist the big one.
The nearly two hour drive to Damariscotta Pumpkin Festival and Regatta weigh off that Sunday morning was a bit of a nail biter. The biggest pumpkins in the state of Maine showed up that morning. Our pumpkin with an estimate of 1667 lbs ended up about 3% heavy at 1711.5 lbs.
It was the heaviest for 2016 in Maine, and second heaviest on record. The Maine state record held by pumpkin king Edwin Pierpont remains at 1727.5 lbs.
As per tradition, the heaviest for the year gets a ride down main street during the annual pumpkinfest parade. It was then left on display during the rest of the festival.
Our pumpkin’s final journey was to the WGME CBS Studio in Portland where it was placed on the CBS 13 Eldridge Lumber weather deck. The giant fruit we grew and cared for for many months prior, was carved by master carver Moe Auger. He’s done few of these to say the least. Check out his website here. Moe and his family came to our studios early on the morning of October 12th. The talented crew transformed Maine’s largest/ heaviest pumpkin for 2016 to Maine’s largest Jack-o Lantern.
It was fitting end to a great season. There were many hands that played a role in this giant pumpkin. Special thanks to my wife and family for putting up with all this nonsense. My wife and kids were responsible for opening and closing the hoop houses in spring, and also covering the pumpkin with warm blankets on cool fall evenings. Thanks to my coworkers for listening to boring giant pumpkin talk all summer. Special thanks to all the Maine and New Hampshire growers who helped me over the years. Pumpkin growing would not be as fun without the great times spent with all the growers throughout the area. Special thanks to Steve Geddes who helped me balance my soil in the spring. He grew New Hampshire’s first one ton pumpkin weighing 2066 lbs. If you’d like to learn more about giant pumpkin growing in Maine, check out the Maine Pumpkin Growers Organization MePGO website here. Also MePGO facebook page here.