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Giant Pumpkins "Go Heavy" This Halloween

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
October 27, 2005
 
It took a forklift and a cargo net to remove the massive vegetable from Jim Beauchemin's Goffstown, New Hampshire, pumpkin patch.

But from a padded perch at the Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts, the gourd placed Beauchemin on top of New England's giant pumpkin world.

His pumpkin became the New England champion when it tipped the scales at a hefty 1,314.8 pounds (596 kilograms).

"The Topsfield Fair is the elite weigh-off in the country," Beauchemin said. "To win it—I call it the pinnacle of my growing years. That's why we do it, the hope of someday winning a title."

How to "Go Heavy"

Beauchemin is part of a growing group of giant-pumpkin aficionados who thrill at watching a well-tended pumpkin swell to massive proportions.

"You plant a seed the size of your fingernail and end up with a thousand-pound {450-kilogram] pumpkin," said George Hoomis, director of the New England Giant Pumpkin Growers Association. "That's incredible."

Pumpkins grow in the cool of the evening, so New England's climate offers prime conditions for "going heavy."

Still, cultivating a giant takes at least an hour or two of daily tending during the five- to six-month growing season.

Gardeners spend that time carefully pruning, prepping soil, and keeping a sharp lookout for the twin banes of gardeners: pests and diseases.

The pumpkins begin to germinate indoors in late April. Beauchemin's champion pumpkin moved outside under protective cover in May. By mid-July it was only the size of a golf ball.

During an explosive growth spurt in August, the pumpkins may suck up nearly 50 gallons (190 liters) of water a day. In a single ten-day period they can pack on up to 35 pounds (16 kilograms) a day.

"It's thrilling but a little scary to a degree as well, because that's when they'll split [open]," Beauchemin explained.

Growing a champion takes discipline during the long season.

"You're basically locked in for the summer, you're not going too far," Hoomis said. "You don't like to leave them, because a lot of things can happen."

Gotta Be the Seeds

You don't become a heavy hitter with seeds from just any leftover jack-o'-lantern. Champion pumpkins come from championship stock. Most serious competitors use the "Dill's Atlantic Giant" seed variety, produced in Windsor, Nova Scotia, by pumpkin legend Howard Dill.

Dill is a former world-record holder. His 1979 champion pumpkin weighed in at 438.5 pounds (199 kilograms)—a mere dwarf by today's standards.

"A few people started getting seeds from Howard," said Hoomis of the growers association. "It was probably like eight or ten guys to begin with.

"Now just because you've got a bunch of backyard growers who are cross-pollinating, sharing seeds and information, we're closing in on [growing a pumpkin that weighs] 1,500 pounds [680 kilograms]."

Friendly Rivals

The world record has fallen annually in recent years. The current champ is Larry Checkon of North Cambria, Pennsylvania. He won with a 1,469-pound (666-kilogram) gourd at the Pennsylvania Giant Pumpkin Growers Weigh-Off in October.

Competitions in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Germany attract thousands of growers.

"Once you grow a thousand-pound pumpkin once or twice, you're kind of recognized as a heavy hitter," Beauchemin, the New England record holder, said.

The increasingly crowded field includes many friendly rivals. Every spring growers from all over the world attend a Canadian seminar where people talk about pumpkins, play poker for valuable seeds, drink beer, and generally have a good time.

"The pumpkins are great," Hoomis said, "but over the years we've met hundreds of the nicest people."

Beauchemin says that aspiring champions will find plenty of experts willing to help them get started.

"We work together instead of against each other," he said. "Obviously you want to win at the weigh-off, but during the season we help each other. By helping each other, we all get better."

Crowd-Pleaser

Competitive growers aren't the only people fascinated by giant gourds. Pumpkin displays and weigh-offs are huge draws for fairgoers.

"Fair organizers say that the two questions that they are always asked are 'Where's the bathroom?' and 'Where is the giant pumpkin?'" Hoomis said. "And not necessarily in that order."

Shape, color, and aesthetics have no importance, which is a good thing, as most giant pumpkins lack the shape and form of their smaller relatives.

Weight is the only quality a champion pumpkin needs to possess. Heavy rinds make heavy pumpkins, but those aren't always apparent at a glance.

"We always leave the three biggest ones for last," said Hoomis, who runs the nationally heralded weigh-off at the Topsfield Fair.

"Chances are that they will be the heaviest. But out of those last three the smallest one could be the heaviest."

The last chance to see Beauchemin's champion pumpkin is drawing nigh. This Saturday it will become New England's largest jack-o'-lantern—just in time for Halloween.

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