As a failed vegetable grower, I stand in awe of those of you whose gardens produce enough fresh produce to feed the entire population of Des Moines. I salute any gardener who harvests so many tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and roasting ears that local food pantries make daily pick-ups.
Monster vegetables, on the other hand, scare the pants off me. There’s something sinister about a pumpkin the size of a compact car, or a carrot that outweighs a bowling ball. In the photographs I’ve seen, monster vegetables are mostly giant, misshapen blobs that resemble alien life forms from another planet. Think Jabba the Hutt threatening to slime the members of Star Fleet Command.
Pick any vegetable, and somebody, somewhere, holds the record for growing the biggest specimen. In the world of giant pumpkins, which is pretty much the Super Bowl for monster produce, a Massachusetts grower set a new world record in 2007 with a behemoth weighing 1,684 pounds. Not long ago, a fellow from Arkansas raised a watermelon weighing 268.8 pounds. And an Oklahoma gardener holds the world record for a tomato weighing 7 pounds, 12 ounces.
Like me, you’re probably asking yourself, “What’s with these people?” After all, you can’t exactly fit an 1,100-pound squash in the oven. And my guess is a 49-pound stalk of celery tastes pretty much like a stick of firewood.
I’m thinking the people who grow monsters are compelled by an abnormal desire to outsmart Mother Nature, who intended for her pumpkins to weigh a measly 10 or 20 pounds.
You all remember the scenes from “Frankenstein’s Monster,” right? Where Dr. Frankenstein is assembling body parts in the lah-boor-ah-tory? Now picture old Doc Frankenstein in the potting shed, explaining gardening to his trusty sidekick, Igor.
“In my hand I hold the magic seeds, Igor, ripped from the bowels of a former monster. We will force them to sprout under heat lamps. And then we will transplant them to the garden, where we will practice the black art of alchemy, enriching the soil with N, P, K and essence of cow, sheep and pig manure – and we will feed them milk all season.
“We will trick nature by hand pollinating each tender young blossom, Igor. We will hold sacrificial rites, where we will pluck the life from all but a single blossom, thus allowing each plant to pour its life blood into just one future monster. We must nurture each plant with a secret mixture of plant food and thousands of gallons of water. And we will erect shelters to protect our young monsters from the weather, while you defend them from animals and birds and insects.
“And then, if the fates decree, we will bring a true monster into the world. Yes, Igor, we will create the world’s biggest zucchini!”
OK, I digress. Not all monster growers have a God complex. Some simply thirst for public acclaim. They’re the folks who step forward to accept blue ribbons at the county fair, those who pose for photos with their gargantuan gourds or colossal cauliflowers for the local newspaper, and who graciously accept speaking invitations from the neighborhood garden club.
My brother-in-law, Gene, is a monster grower whose vegetables have been featured in his hometown newspaper. Not only has Gene been invited to speak before the members of the local garden club, but he even has groupies – neighborhood women who are drawn to his garden like honeybees to nectar. Gene claims he grows monsters just to see the shocked look on people’s faces. Come on, Gene, admit it. It’s good to be a gardening idol.
At the top end of the game, world champion growers can become as famous as, say, an Olympic gold medalist or a serial killer. Set a new record with a monster pumpkin, and your name goes into the Guinness Book of World Records. Plus, there’s a good chance you’ll be invited to appear on a network television talk show or be profiled in USA Today or the Wall Street Journal. Hah, and your mother-in-law said you’d never amount to a pinch of manure.
For some monster growers, it’s about the money. Although you’ll have to hit the big leagues if you hope to recoup your investment in greenhouses and grow lights, fertilizers, insect and pest repellents, well-seasoned cow pies, and enough water to fill the municipal swimming pool.
Back in 1996, a New York couple produced a pumpkin weighing in at a whopping 1,061 pounds, thereby claiming the World Pumpkin Federation’s $50,000 prize for the first pumpkin to smash the 1,000-pound barrier. Life can be good for monster growers.
While the $50,000 jackpot has been claimed, you can still earn serious cabbage with big vegetables. A 1,524-pound pumpkin won $9,144 in prize money at last year’s Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival in California. And a 1,535.5 pounder earned $7,500 at the Giant Pumpkin & Harvest Festival in Elk Grove, California. Those West Coast folks are serious about their pumpkins.
The Great Pumpkin Commonwealth is an international organization of pumpkin growers that organizes and sanctions some 58 weigh-off competitions around the world. At sanctioned events, they offer a $1,000 prize for the heaviest pumpkin, $500 for the heaviest green squash and $500 for the heaviest orange pumpkin. Break the world record with your pumpkin or squash, and they’ll put another $500 in your pocket.
There’s more money to be made if some restaurant or casino wants to buy your pumpkin for display. According to news reports, several giant pumpkins went on display last fall at a Las Vegas hotel and casino. Probably right beside the $5 slot machines.
None of this loot, of course, includes the “stud fees” you can earn by selling seeds from your prize-winning monster. Some monster growers also write “how-to” books, or are paid to endorse seed or fertilizer products. Others earn fees by making public appearances at gardening shows, where, no doubt, they’re mobbed by groupies.
I don’t think my brother-in-law has hit the big money yet. But at least he has a fan club.
Jerry Schleicher is a country humorist and cowboy poet from Parkville, Missouri, who gave up vegetable gardening after the squirrels began pointing and laughing at his tomato plants.