Pumpkin Festival Assists With Father Son Relationship

1 / 2
Weigh-offs determine the champion at the Grower's Festival in Golden Valley, Minnesota.
2 / 2
Festival goers admire a truckload of giant pumpkins at the Grower's Festival in Golden Valley, Minnesota.

Nine-year old Jacob Gemlo and his father, Chris, spend six months each year in a struggle of love – growing the great pumpkin. How did they get hooked?

In 2003, the Gemlo family moved to Kelly Drive in Golden Valley, Minnesota. The house sits in the middle of the Kelly Drive Pumpkin Growers Association, (KDPGA), which annually hosts a Grower’s Festival with more than 800 attendees. Surrounded by other growers, Chris and Jacob easily became part of the area’s energy and excitement.

The pumpkin season of 2007 put the partners to the test. Using 12 seeds obtained from former Minnesota record holder Jim Foss, the two started seedlings indoors in April. Three giant pumpkin seedlings were planted May 15.

Jacob and Chris had a good strategy for their 120-day growing season. The two used a variety of fertilizers to help feed the giant pumpkin plants. As the plants grew, the vine runners were clipped, placed 90 degrees from the main vine and then buried. Chris says this helps the plants develop a greater root system to bring more nutrients to the giant pumpkins.

They helped the bees by manually pollinating the female blossoms. Early in the season, they chose which pumpkins to eliminate and which to maintain for growth.

Watering required careful planning and disciplined follow-through. Their land is somewhat low. They needed to water enough, yet allow the ground to dry out. Timing was also critical. If they watered too late in the day, they risked evaporation (midday) or leaf fungus (evening/night). The two decided to water and work on the pumpkins in the morning.

Both gardeners watched and reacted to pests: vine borers, rabbits, squirrels, mice and weeds. They buried the vines to protect them from the borers. They fenced out the wildlife. On a regular schedule they handpicked weeds. They used pesticides, primarily Sevin, to help reduce the destruction of their plants.

The drought of 2007 forced them to use all their skills to keep their pumpkins watered and fertilized.

“You need to be willing to learn and adapt to the challenges thrown at you. Luck also helps,” Chris says. With the plants in good shape, and their plan in place, Chris and Jacob were ready to let the pumpkins explode with growth.

Through July, August and September, the pair’s pumpkins grew at a good rate. Their largest pumpkin grew at a rate of up to 3 inches a day. It rested on a platform off the ground, reducing the chances of rot. They constructed a tarp-type roof protecting the mammoth from cracking in the sun.

The low ground helped during the dry period, but proved a challenge during the rainy month of September. Three weeks before the Pumpkin Festival and weigh-off, the wet ground, or an unseen pest, won the battle.

During a tour of the pumpkins, the pair spotted a crack in their giant pumpkin. At the time of its crack, the pumpkin was estimated to weigh nearly 600 pounds. After it split, the pumpkin’s insides began to flow out, and Jacob named him Barfin Billy.

Jacob and Chris Gemlo took third place with a pumpkin weighing 372 pounds, named Barfin Billy Jr. The champion pumpkin for 2007 KDPGA grew to the weight of 672 pounds, well within the range of Barfin Billy’s potential.

The two growers again took third in 2008. The pair loves the competition and the camaraderie of the growers who help each other, but mostly, working together as the growing team.

They claim that 2009 is the year they bring in the Great Pumpkin.

On a side note …

Growth: Pumpkin growth gains in circumference can average 4 to 6 inches and 25 to 30 pounds in a 24-hour period. 

Records: World record holder Joe Jutras, of Rhode Island, grew a 1,689-pound pumpkin. Minnesota record holder Chad Revier, of New London, grew a 1,428-pound pumpkin. 

Bill Foss, former Minnesota record holder, on watering and fertilizing: Pumpkins are shallow rooted and need at least 1 inch of water per week or more during hot, dry periods. Each pumpkin is 90 percent water. Add water-soluble plant food during watering. Use 15-30-15 plant food during May and June to promote root growth, 20-20-20 during July, and 15-10-30 to the end of the growing season. 

Don Lanvegin, author of How to Grow World-Class Giant Pumpkins, says, If you can grow a good vegetable garden, you have the skill to grow a world record pumpkin. I’ve seen newcomers grow 500-pound pumpkins in their first year with good seed, some rudimentary help from an experienced grower, and a lot of luck. 

See the following websites for more on growing giant pumpkins: