You might have seen them at your local county fair, giant pumpkins weighing hundreds of pounds with a blue ribbon hanging off the stem in the open vegetable class. Perhaps you’ve even thought about growing an enormous pumpkin in your garden, but you have your doubts.
However, giant pumpkin growers like Jack and Sherry LaRue of Tenino, Washington, see no reason why an average gardener can’t grow a 200 to 300 pounder. The LaRues know what they’re talking about when it comes to growing large pumpkins. In 2004, Jack grew a 1,420-pound pumpkin that at the time set the United States record. Three years ago, Sherry grew a personal best giant pumpkin that tipped the scales at 1,116 pounds.
The year Jack grew his U.S. record-setting giant pumpkin, a large pumpkin grower from Canada beat him out by 25 1/2 pounds to take the world record. After the October 7, 2006, weigh-offs held around the nation, Ron Wallace, a Rhode Island pumpkin grower, set a new U.S. and World record with a giant pumpkin weighing 1,502 pounds. Of course, that record didn’t last long: Joe Jutras, North Scituate, Rhode Island, brought a 1,689-pound winner to the Topsfield Fair Giant Pumpkin Commonwealth weigh-off in Topsfield, Massachusetts, in 2007, a record which still stands.
At a recent Morgan Hill, California, weigh-off sponsored by Uesugi Farms, Jack took first place with his giant, light orange-colored pumpkin. It weighed in at 1,315 pounds, well off the record.
The LaRues say most people don’t realize there’s a whole world of giant pumpkin organizations, associations and federations on the local, national and world level, all aimed at promoting the growing of giant pumpkins: There’s the International Pumpkin Association (IPA), the World Pumpkin Confederation (WPC) and the Giant Pumpkin Commonwealth (GPC), among others.
The LaRues are members of the Pacific Giant Vegetable Growers Club, which has a worldwide membership of about 300 with close to 120 members scattered across the Northwest.
The biggest day of the year for giant pumpkin growers is the first Saturday of October, when there are approximately 30 giant pumpkin weigh-offs held around the United States and Canada.
At the 2006 weigh-off at Half Moon Bay, California, Sherry’s 1,116-pound giant placed fourth, and she took home $1,000. She now considers herself in the “Big League.” Jack received $3,900 for his U.S. record pumpkin in 2004.
The LaRues say there are 90 to 100 giant pumpkins from 50 to 55 growers at an average weigh-off. The weigh-offs are usually sponsored by large corporations or businesses, and there’s often $10,000 or more in prize money awarded. The sponsor usually keeps the giant pumpkins of the top winners for advertising and sales promotion. After the promotions are over, all the seeds are returned to the pumpkin grower.
Jack’s non-pumpkin-growing job is working as a commodities inspector for the Washington State Department of Agriculture checking Northwest wheat bound for overseas markets. Sherry teaches a combined first- and second-grade class for the Tenino School District.
The LaRues’ rural home, a few miles southeast of Tenino, is located atop a hill. Their 1/3-acre pumpkin garden slopes toward the east, which allows it to receive almost a full day of sunlight and allows for excessive water run-off. The garden is well protected with a fully enclosed high wire fence to keep out animals.
They’ll both tell you that their secret to growing giant pumpkins is to “start with good seeds.” The LaRues recommend purchasing Dill’s Atlantic Giant Pumpkin seeds. Check out the website at www.HowardDill.com. Over the years, Jack has kept detailed records and established a history of the pumpkins they’ve raised. He’s listed the positive qualities and characteristics of the pumpkins including genetics, size, shape, color and skin thickness. From computer spreadsheets, he can trace the family tree of each pumpkin and select seeds from among thousands he keeps stored in plastic compartmentalized containers.
At the height of their critical growing time, Sherry said, “Most of the giant pumpkins will gain between 20 to 25 pounds a day in weight.” She’s seen a pumpkin put on 40 pounds in one day under ideal growing conditions.
According to Sherry, the pumpkins are all measured at least once a week. When a pumpkin gains boulder-size weight, it requires both LaRues to tape it to determine its projected weight. Estimated weight is done by a tape measurement from side-to-side (ground to ground), and stem to blossom (ground to ground), and then measuring the circumference (the distance around). These measurements are then fed into a computer formula to come up with a total projected weight.
Hauling a huge 1,000-pound-plus pumpkin to a weigh-off is no easy feat. Picking up one of their behemoths requires a one-ton chain hoist, several 4-by-8-foot sheets of plywood, a portable pallet jack with a 6-inch rubber foam pad, and a pickup truck. The pallet is blocked to prevent movement while being transported, and the pumpkin is draped with a soaking wet blanket, covered by a cargo net tarp and tied down securely. When everything is loaded, they head out. If it’s located in California, a weigh-off can be a two-day, 800-mile-one-way drive from their home. They can only hope that the pumpkin, or pumpkins (sometimes they’ll haul two pumpkins at a time), doesn’t dry out and lose too much body weight en route.
Try growing a giant pumpkin in your own garden. Who knows, next year it might be your giant pumpkin that receives the blue ribbon and oohs and aahs at the county fair.