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SALT LAKE CITY — Ross Bowman buries heat coils in his carefully tested soil. He covers his plants with teepees. And he schedules his summer vacations around irrigation schedules — all so he can end up with award-winning giant pumpkins.
Throughout the 90-day growing season in Utah, the retired rocket scientist routinely measures his pumpkins and meticulously keeps track of whatever water and fertilizer is used to help them grow.
"It took me eight years to get one over 1,000 pounds," Bowman, of Brigham City said. He caught the pumpkin-growing bug in 2002, after seeing a 667-pound squash at an Idaho County Fair. "I had a goal to get to 1,000 pounds. Now my goal is to reach 1,500 pounds and I haven't even come close."
This year, his pumpkin weighed in at 1,023.5 pounds and every bit of the 78-year-old man's "hobby" was completely calculated.
Then, on Saturday, he cut into it, hollowed it out and climbed inside to race in the 3rd annual Pumpkin Regatta at Sugarhouse Park. It is an event hosted by the Mountain Valley Seed Co., which distributes giant pumpkin seeds to members of the Utah Giant Pumpkin Growers Association every year.
The club tours each other's pumpkin patches, take a growing class and learn from each other how to get the most out of one seed. Some have been cultivating their soil for years, and others, like David Bradley, spend hundreds of dollars on pedigreed seeds online in order to come out on top.
"He spends the entire winter on the Internet researching seeds," Cathy Bradley said about her husband, both of Millcreek. What started as a simple neighborhood contest, won by the Bradleys with an 83-pound pumpkin, has grown more and more competitive every year.
It took me eight years to get one over 1,000 pounds. I had a goal to get to 1,000 pounds. Now my goal is to reach 1,500 pounds and I haven't even come close.
"(His pumpkins) get bigger every year," she said. The couple had the "best looking" pumpkin this year, with it weighing in at a whopping 882 pounds. David Bradley said a bright orange color and "perfect curves" got them the title.
He and his wife took turns paddling their "kin" to the finish line — maybe 30 yards from the starting point, but far enough to work up a sweat, even on a crisp fall day.
The collective weight of the 12 pumpkins bobbing in the shallow pond was 9,168 pounds. Their "grower rowers" could be found in costumes, bobbing along inside.
"Guys (and gals) who grow pumpkins this big are out of their minds," said Robb Baumann, of Mountain Valley Seed Co. He said the group has a lot of fun settling their various and playful vendettas on the water.
Baumann said the more warm days in a season, the bigger a pumpkin will grow. It also requires special seeds.
The newest member of the regatta crew was a spectator at last year's event who very gratefully took home a seed from one of the half-ton-ers harvested last year.
Cheryl Shelley, of Salt Lake City, had never grown anything that big before, but vowed she'd return to compete. Dressed as Cinderella and paddling a baby blue pumpkin boat, Shelley bested others to make it into the final heat this year.
Unfortunately, she was passed up by a speedier Kyle Fox, who was racing his wife's pumpkin, and won. The Foxes compete with each other as much as they do within the group, Baumann said.
Bowman, the winner of the first-ever pumpkin regatta in Utah, held in 2010, hasn't matched his own winning record yet, but perhaps it's because his pumpkins get bigger (and heavier) every year.
Regardless of the outcome of the regatta, he said he has a good time growing his giant gourds. The spirit of competition also benefits his entire garden, which neighbors say has drawn tourists.
"It takes a good seed. It takes good soil. It takes good weather and it takes good luck," Bowman said. "You have to feed it a lot and water it every day. It's a lot of hard work, but worth it in the end."