Science

Growing Giant, Prize-Worthy Pumpkins is Incredibly Time-Consuming, Complicated and Expensive

You've got a green thumb? That's cute. Prize-worthy giant pumpkin growers have orange thumbs, which is decidedly more impressive. To call this just a hobby would be a significant understatement; these people have a passion for pumpkins that's hard to believe. And you thought the biggest pumpkin people were the ones ordering PSLs at Starbucks.

It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

Most pumpkins you've probably dealt with are about the size of your head. While that's plenty big for Halloween jack-o'-lanterns, that's nothing in the business of big pumpkin growers.

In 2016, the world record for heaviest pumpkin measured a borderline disturbing 2,624.6 lbs (1,190.49 kg). That's the weight of a 2017 MINI Cooper. There's reason to believe giant pumpkins are going to keep getting bigger and bigger, too. Consider the fact that in 1981, the world record pumpkin weighed 493.5 lbs. A few decades later, that weight record more than quadrupled. That's a lot of pumpkin pies (ignoring the fact that giant pumpkins are not fit for eating, with their low sugar content and extremely thick walls...)!

I Would Grow Anything For Love

Giant pumpkins getting more and more incomprehensibly massive is no accident. (Could you imagine if it were?!) The world's biggest pumpkins are carefully genetically engineered and selectively bred for optimal size. George Hamilton, an extension field specialist in fruits and vegetables at the University of New Hampshire, tells Smithsonian magazine the importance of a grower's checklist, in order of rank: "Number one is genetics, number two is genetics, number three is genetics. And then number four you've got sun, warmth, fertilizer, and water."

"I like to say we're just a big bunch of obsessive-compulsive people," Dave Stelts, the president of the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, told the New York Times. "The stuff we do to get pumpkins to this size, it's out of control." Take it from Don Young, an amateur pumpkin grower that was profiled by the NYT in 2011. He spends $8,000 a year on his passion project, "money he admits he does not really have." Young even went so far as inventing his own grafting technique that pushes the food and energy of two pumpkin plants into a single fruit. Other pumpkin growers use things like ZeoPro; a cocktail of supernutrients developed by NASA; or PPFM (or pink-pigmented facultative methylotrophs), a natural growth hormone unavailable on the market.

Knowledge and care only make up part of the process. The other is sacrifice. As the New York Times explains, Young "wakes up in the middle of the night to check his pumpkins. He uses 27,000 gallons of water a month — nearly enough to supply a family of four for a year — and he has 80 sprinkler heads. He runs heat lamps all night after planting seeds in the chilly April ground, and cools his gourds with fans in sweltering midsummer heat. He can't remember the last time he took a vacation." Ah, the things we do for love.

Looking to take your Halloween game to the next level? Check out "Play With Your Pumpkins" by Joost Elffers and Joost Elffers. When you purchase the book with this link, you help to support Curiosity.

What's the secret to growing giant pumpkins?

Written By
Joanie Faletto
October 16, 2017