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Larry Sagers Horticultural Specialist Utah State University Extension Service Thanksgiving Point Office © All Rights Reserved
The Utah Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off is set up for Saturday October 9th at J&L Garden Center. They will have a scale to weigh of giant pumpkins and a tent set up for bad weather if any. The TV news stations are aware of Gordon Tanners pumpkins which are likely a new Utah Record. Anyone who wants to get their pumpkins weighed should have them there by 1:00 pm for the weigh-off at 2:00 pm.
The Address to J&L Garden Center is: 620 North 500 West, Boutiful Utah. If coming from the north take the 500 West(HGY 89) exit. This exit is from the left lane. Follow 500 west off the exit and J&L will be on the East(left) side. If coming from the south, take 400 North exit. Turn right(East). Turn left(North) at the light. J&L will be on the right(East) side.
It was no surprise that October 2, 2004 produced yet another world record pumpkin. This new record belong to Al Eaton in Canada with a 1446 pound pumpkin.
Growing giant pumpkins or giant squash is not a lighthearted commitment. It takes time, it takes water, it takes soil, it takes fertilizer and it takes genetics.
The genetics of these giants is closely tracked by growers throughout the world. While you will not find their genealogy in the famous Family History Center in Salt Lake City they still have pedigrees as long as some race horses.
The story starts with a Canadian by the name of Howard Dill. Dill stared growing a pumpkin variety called Atlantic Giant. With careful selection and diligent promotion he literally moved growing giant pumpkins from a garden pastime to a horticultural sport. It has now become a sort of combination Super Bowl, World Series and Olympic rolled into one as the potential record breakers are brought in by their proud owners.
Just a few years ago the record holding pumpkins we in the sub 550 pound category. In 1996 the first pumpkin to tip the scales at more than 1000 pound was grown in Ohio.
His introduction to the “sport” came ten years from another pumpkin enthusiast, Ray Tolman also of Bountiful. Tolman good-naturedly complains that he taught many others to grow the pumpkins and they have ended up beating him at his own game. Both Orchard and Tolman network and teach others how to grow the gigantic fruits.
For a quick primer on how to grow the gigantic pumpkins, Orchard agreed to share some of his secrets. Although no one will be planting pumpkins until next spring his advice is that anyone who wants to win has to start now.
At his home he spends every fall getting ready to grow his prize winners. His secret is in the soil. Each year he brings in tons of organic matter to cover and amend his 2500 square foot pumpkin patch. His choices include peat moss, alfalfa hay, leaves and this year truckloads of steer manure.
“What you put down in the fall is the key,” relates Orchard. “It won’t do you any good to put it down in the spring.”
Fertilizer is another key to growing the giants. Orchard’s fertilizer regime is not your common everyday backyard garden program. He usually uses a liquid fertilizer but varies that according to the plant needs.
“I start with a high phosphorous program to promote roots and to promote blossoms. I also use a high nitrogen fertilizer before the blossoms set. After blossom set I switch to a 20-20-20 or 14-14-14 complete fertilizer to keep the plants growing. In addition to the liquid fertilizer I also use a slow release fertilizer called Osmocote to supplement the nutrients.”
“At the end of the season during their last month of growth I switch to a high potash fertilizer. Under normal circumstances we don’t need to add potash in Utah but it helps to thicken the cell walls so the pumpkins are more durable. I also spray the plants throughout the season with a mixture of seaweed and fish emulsion.”
As mentioned previously, the plant genetics are critical. Orchard has gone to the Northwest to get his seed source because that is where the current winners seem to come from. An interesting horticulture anomaly is that although pumpkins are a warm weather crop, the biggest fruit are produced in cooler climates with longer days during the summer.
“Our climate is much warmer and drier that most areas where they are producing the prize winners,” claims Orchard. “I got some seed from a 567.5 lb. pumpkin and have been crossing and saving the seeds to get a type that is more likely to tolerate our summer heat and low humidity. It takes 2-3 years to select plants that will tolerate our heat.”
To help his pumpkins cope with the heat, he covers the patch with netting to prevent sunburn from the intense summer sunshine. He also has a mist system installed to cool the vines down during the hottest part of the year.
As incredible as it might seem, these giants are produced in about three month’s time. He usually lets the fruit set on the vine about the first week in July. Since the national weigh offs are held the first weekend in October the pumpkins grow to their mammoth size in some 90 days. (Do the math; 1200 lbs in 90 days means the biggest pumpkins gain some 13 lbs. each day.)
The plants are not immune to potential pest problems. Orchard has a regular program to control aphids. He also dusts for squash bugs because they are a serious problem. This year he had a serious problem with white grubs that he attributes to his bringing in truckloads of steer manure.
His advice to beginners is to prepare their soil this fall. “These plants have such an extensive root system that you have to give them room to grow. The roots spread more than 20 feet out from the plants. Most people don’t want to expend the effort to fix that much soil.”
So will he hold his crown for another year? His current champion is at about 600 lbs. and still has about another week. Given the fact that they are gaining at about 55-60 lbs. per week he might still hold the crown for another year.
“You need a good seed source, and an interest in growing the plants. You also need a lot of luck.”