Charles M. Schulz may be gone, but the Great Pumpkin lives on, right here in Maine.
Sabattus couple David and Carol Gott have been growing giant pumpkins and squashes in their backyard for the last five years. They started after David grew one at work one year.
When Carol saw it, she said to herself, “That’s really cool! I’d like to give it a try.”
The following year, she grew her first giant squash. It weighed in at 265 pounds and was eventually carved into a gecko.
The year after that, the Gotts joined MEPGO, the Maine Pumpkin Growers Organization, where they got not only seeds from other area growers, but also valuable advice. Though competition among growers can be fierce, most are happy to share their hobby, including genetic material and hard-earned knowledge, with newcomers.
“For anyone who is just starting out, it’s really important to talk to the guys who have been doing it for years. They really taught us a lot,” said Carol Gott.
Because pumpkin weigh-offs allow only one entry per category per family, David and Carol Gott’s strategy is to divide and conquer. David grows pumpkins, while Carol focuses on squash.
Last year, though, some seeds got crossed, and Carol ended up with a pumpkin. It grew to be 560 pounds – larger than anything either she or her husband had ever grown, though small in comparison to some others grown in Maine and beyond.
Growing great big pumpkins may sound like a throwback to bygone days when everyone grew their own food and got around by horse-drawn carriage, but the hobby is relatively new.
As recently as 1992, the world-record-setting pumpkin weighed in at a meager 493 pounds. That pumpkin was grown by Howard Dill, of Windsor, Nova Scotia, the godfather of giant pumpkins. Just about all giant pumpkins grown today are descended from his patented Atlantic Giants.
That year was followed by a long string of record-breakers, as growers pushed their pumpkins to weights of more than 500, 1,000 and even 1,500 pounds.
The current world record was set last October by father-daughter team Jim and Kelsey Bryson of Quebec, with their 1,818-pound behemoth. Maine’s reigning champion is grower Edwin Pierpont of Jefferson, whose 1,471-pounder took the title in 2010. Last year’s winner, Elroy Morgan of Bradford, couldn’t snatch the record away with his pumpkin, which weighed in at 1,371 pounds.
Gaining 50 pounds a day
The Brysons’ record isn’t likely to last long. The race is now on to grow the world’s first one-ton pumpkin. The organizers of a weigh-off in California think this might be the year, and have put up a $25,000 prize for the first grower to topple the one-ton barrier.
The reason giant pumpkins are such a contemporary phenomenon is likely because growing them can be incredibly complex and, for serious growers, high tech.
Warming blankets, grow lights, watering systems and shade structures are just a few of the tools growers use to pamper their pumpkins. In addition, each grower experiments with his or her own super-charged compost blend, generally including some mixture of cow manure, molasses, maple leaves, gypsum, liquid kelp and commercial organic fertilizers.
Giant pumpkins also take a lot of land (as much as 600 square feet per fruit), water (one champion grower reported using 27,000 gallons in a single season) and, most of all, time. Depending on how size-obsessed a grower is, the pumpkin hobby can easily become a full-time occupation.
Bristol-based grower Bill Clark said he can spend as much as 60 hours a week in his patch, weeding, pruning, watering, feeding, hand-pollinating and managing light and temperature.
“You really don’t have time to do anything else, and your house starts falling down around your ears,” he said.
Clark began growing big pumpkins more than a decade ago, just to give his kids something fun and interesting to carve at Halloween. That first year, he grew five big ones, all around 200 pounds.
After that, he caught the bug and wanted to see how big he could get them. Since then, he has grown several 1,000-pounders.
With enough water, nutrients and the right growing conditions, giant pumpkins can gain as much as 50 pounds in a single day. Unfortunately for growers, that staggering growth rate is both their best friend and worst enemy: Prized pumpkins can, and routinely do, crack under the pressure of their own rapid growth.
The trick, said Clark, is to walk a fine line between holding them together and pushing their weight to its maximum, and it’s a difficult balance.
“The motto of all giant pumpkin growers is: ‘If you’re not blowing them, you’re not growing them,” he said.
Smashed cars and pumpkin regattas
The season begins in late April or early May — when new seeds are sown, usually indoors under grow lights — and ends in late September, when they are loaded up to be weighed off at county, state and regional competitions.
In Maine, growers can compete for ribbons at any number of agricultural fairs, but the real competition happens at the annual weigh-off sanctioned by MEPGO. The weigh-off used to take place at the Cumberland Fair, but for the last few years, giant pumpkins have taken center stage at their own statewide event, the Damariscotta Pumpkinfest. Clark is a co-founder of both MEPGO and the festival.
The event draws competitors to its weigh-off with a total purse of $10,000. Even those who don’t win a top prize can walk away with a little money; festival organizers buy dozens of pumpkins for its three-day cucurbit-themed celebration a week later on Columbus Day weekend.
With walls up to a foot thick and much less sugar content than their smaller kin, giant pumpkins aren’t good for making pies or even jack-o’-lanterns, but that doesn’t stop the organizers of the annual gala of gargantuan gourds from finding plenty of uses for them.
After the weigh-off, which happens a week before the rest of the festivities, organizers buy up as many giants as possible to be decorated and displayed, made into boats and raced, or hauled up into the sky by a massive crane and dropped onto junk cars at the event’s finale.
One of the highlights of the annual festival is the giant pumpkin regatta at Damariscotta Lake State Park. Competitors carve pumpkins into boats and race them across the lake. There are races for both motor-powered and human-powered pumpkins.
The regatta started out as a gag, when Clark and his two friends, Buzz Pinkham and Tom Lishness, hauled some pumpkins out onto the lake one year, just to see if they would float.
Pinkham had seen a pumpkin boat in a book and asked Clark to make him one.
“I told him, ‘I’ll grow it, and I’ll make it, but I’m not getting in it,’” said Clark.
Clark eventually did get into a pumpkin boat, though.
“We spent three hours cruising around in the lake in these things on an 80-degree Columbus Day,” said Clark.
A year after that, the friends decided to invite others to try it out, and made it into a race.
Peter Geiger in Moby Dick
Peter Geiger of Lewiston has competed in 10 pumpkin regattas in various locations, and has won the Damariscotta race several times since the event’s inception. He uses a kayak paddle to power himself through the water in a hollowed out 500-pound pumpkin.
Each year, Geiger’s “boat” is decorated with a different theme – recent incarnations have included a cow, a spaceship, a turtle, a beaver and, last year, Moby Dick.
“I race every year because no two pumpkins are ever the same. It is always a challenge to get one to go forward and to do so with speed,” said Geiger.
“But, it is the roar of the crowd and the excitement of children that keeps me going back for another trophy," he added. "It gets my adrenaline flowing, and at my age, that is much appreciated.”
The annual event also attracts a wide range of artists, who paint and carve the hefty specimens for display around town.
Maurice Auger of Alfred is one such artist. A sculptor and art teacher at Bonny Eagle Middle School, Auger first began carving giant pumpkins when a grower in his district donated one to the school.
“It weighed about 500 pounds and it took five people to get it into the school,” recalled Auger.
He uses woodcarving tools, and prefers to carve faces. It usually takes him four to five hours to finish a carving.
“It’s really the shape of the pumpkin that dictates what it is going to be,” said Auger, who has been carving giant pumpkins for more than 20 years.
David and Carol Gott both had their pumpkins decorated by artists and featured at last year’s Pumpkinfest. Carol’s 560-pounder was painted to resemble a laughing Buddha, complete with a smaller pumpkin popped onto the top for a head, while David’s was transformed into a crab.
Though the Gotts’ pumpkins aren’t large enough to win any prizes, they don’t really mind.
“For us, this is just a hobby. We’re not in this to make any money. It’s just really fun and intriguing to see how big we can get them. We love going to these festivals and seeing the size of some of these pumpkins and the creative things people do with them,” said Carol.
In fact, the couple are sowing seeds for the next generation. David has been helping his young granddaughter in Warren grow her own giant pumpkins this summer.
“We’re passing the fun along,” said Carol.