Growing the Great Pumpkin

giant pumpkin

Giant pumpkins look nothing like the ones that might decorate your doorstep for Halloween. (Photo credit: Shutterstock)

For many, “the great pumpkin” may evoke childhood memories of the classic Charlie Brown animated feature, for generations a staple of Halloween-themed television programming. While Linus never ends up seeing the great pumpkin, many amateur gardeners across North America do find pumpkins of giant proportions growing in their backyard pumpkin patches.However, these giant pumpkins don’t just appear overnight. Instead, their appearance is the result of many long hours (and months) of hard work spent by gardeners hoping to grow world-record breaking giant pumpkins.

Pumpkins are a type of squash, a member of the Cucurbitacae family. Other members of this family include melons, cucumbers, and gourds. Field pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo), such as the ones used as jack o’ lanterns for Halloween, are different from the species that gave rise to giant pumpkins(Cucurbita maxima). Unlike field pumpkins, which are typically bred for flavor, giant pumpkins are bred for size. For all intents and purposes, they are inedible.

The ancestors of the modern pumpkin originated in Central or South America. In North America, most pumpkins are grown in the “Great Pumpkin Belt,” which stretches from Washington state to Nova Scotia. This region of North America is characterized by a period of 90-120 frost-free summer days and a winter cold enough to keep insects and diseases at bay, ideal growing conditions for pumpkins. However, some competitive pumpkin growers have found success outside of this zone, including growers in Arizona and Alaska.

It All Starts with the Seeds

The key to growing a giant pumpkin is starting with the right seeds. The history of growing large pumpkins in North America can be traced back to Henry David Thoreau, who grew a 123.5 pound pumpkin in his garden in 1857. The growth of his French Potiron Jaune de Paris pumpkins marked one of the first times that giant pumpkins appeared in an American garden. By the late 1800s, gardeners were growing pumpkins that weighed more than 350 pounds. It would take nearly 100 years for growers to reach the 500-pound mark.

In 1976, Canadian Howard Dill ushered in the modern giant pumpkin growing craze with the development of his patented Dill Atlantic Giant pumpkin seeds. In 1985, the first world-record-breaking 500-pound pumpkin was grown. Over the last 30 years, giant pumpkins have grown by leaps and bounds In fact, since 2000, the world record for giant pumpkin weight has been broken every year except 2008. In 2012, Ron Wallace of Greene, Rhode Island , finally breached the one-ton barrier by growing a whopping 2,009-pound pumpkin.

Seeds used to grow giant pumpkins are named by combining the weight of the pumpkin they came from with the last name of the grower. Those growers lucky enough to get a seed from Wallace’s 2012 world-record-breaking giant pumpkin would get a 2009 Wallace. Growers procure seeds through a variety of methods, including seed auctions, trades, and special requests. Giant pumpkins contain hundreds of seeds, so growers have a lot to share.

Not the Prettiest Pumpkins in the Patch

The giant pumpkins grown today look nothing like the spherical, orange pumpkins popular at Halloween. Instead, they are lumpy, bumpy, lopsided, and flattened. Dont blame the growers or even the pumpkins for this odd shape. Blame physics!

David Hu, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, studied how extreme weight affects the shape of giant pumpkins. In his study, published in the International Journey of Non-Linear Mechanics, Hu and his colleagues hypothesized that pumpkin flattening is caused by the weight of the pumpkin slowing its normal growth processes. To test this hypothesis, they conducted experiments in which they placed pumpkins in vice-like instruments and subjected them to increasing pressures until they cracked.

“The weight is causing it to have accelerated rates of [cell] division in certain places,” Hu said in an interview with Flora Lichtman ofScience Friday. “That’s why you get higher division rates in the places of highest tension. This new shape allows it to accommodate a much larger amount of force.”

In addition to their funky shape, giant pumpkins also exhibit colors other than the traditional bright orange. Giant pumpkins may be grey, white, or pink. Many of these pumpkins also have a rough cantaloupe-like netting appearance to their skin.

The Growing Season

Growing a giant pumpkin takes a huge amount of dedication. The process begins in April, when growers start their seeds. Germinating practices can vary from grower to grower. Some growers plant the seeds in small soil-filled pots, while others place them in wet paper towels to germinate. Once the seeds have started to grow, the growers normally continue to grow them indoors until weather conditions are amenable to planting the young seedlings outdoors. This typically is in May or after the last frost of the season.

In June, most giant pumpkin growers fertilize the pumpkin flowers by hand. The rest of the growing season is marked by long hours of watering, fertilizing, and pruning as well as the careful application of pesticides and fungicides when necessary.

During the main growing season, growers may spend more than 30 hours per week tending their pumpkin patches. Even with careful monitoring, factors beyond the grower’s control can lead to mishaps in the garden. Insect invasions, browsing predators, and fungi outbreaks can wreak havoc in a pumpkin patch. The excessive rate of growth of giant pumpkins can also be disastrous. At the height of the growing season, pumpkins can put on as many as 40-50 pounds per day. This fast growth rate can literally cause pumpkins to burst at their seams, dashing a pumpkin grower’s dreams of bringing a big one to the annual weigh-off.

By September, the pumpkin growing season is over, and pumpkin growers begin to harvest their pumpkins to bring them to one of the regional weigh-offs held across the country. In addition to bragging rights, growers of the largest pumpkins also may bring home a cash prize, which may range from a few hundred dollars to over $10,000 at the larger events.

After the Weigh-Offs

So what happens to these giant pumpkins after the weigh-offs are complete? Some weigh-off winning pumpkins make their way to television and appear (along with their growers!) on shows such as The Tonight Show, The Martha Stewart Show, and Late Night with David Letterman. Other giant pumpkins are carved by professional carvers and put on display at places such as zoos, botanical gardens, and even shopping malls. And, though you might not think so, the hollowed-out giant pumpkins actually do float. This fact has made pumpkin paddling races a popular event around the country.

More to Explore
The Great Pumpkin: Backyard Botanists Shoot for 1-Ton Mark
The Race to Break the Squash Barrier
The Great Pumpkin
How to Grow Giant Pumpkins
Physics of Giant Pumpkins (video)
Quest for the Giant Pumpkin
Big Pumpkins: A Giant Pumpkin Growing Community
Backyard Giants
The Great Pumpkin Commonwealth

Comments

  1. Anthony Heggie says:

    I had always known that giant pumpkins have been around, but I never knew they were inedible and not related to field pumpkins!

  2. Max Faust says:

    I knew that pumpkins could get pretty large but not that big and weigh that much.

    • Terri Johnson says:

      Check out Pumpkin Festivals on the internet. You’d be surprised at how many there are and there may be one close enough to your area where you could see these amazing giants first hand. We live in Illinois, but Centerville, Ohio has a really nice Pumpkin Festival. Enjoy the season 😉

  3. Clay Sims says:

    Can you imagine a 2,000 lb. vegetable growing in your backyard. I wonder how long that would take to carve that thing out for halloween. That’s cool beans!

  4. Natalie Bondurant says:

    I never realized that giant pumpkins were related to cucumbers or could be grey or pink.

  5. Natalie Bondurant says:

    I never knew that either! I always thought that any type of pumpkin was edible.

  6. Cullen Dickerson says:

    Wow! I didnt know that it was that hard to grow pumpkins.

  7. Colton Carver says:

    I didnt know that you could win up to $10,000 cash prize for first place by just having the Largest pumpkin at a contest.

  8. Alexis Dupoux says:

    It’s so crazy how large these pumpkins are! It’s also really cool how long the process takes!

  9. Max Faust says:

    This is absolutely amazing that pumpkins can get this large and weigh that much. I knew that they could get really big but not that big.

  10. This very interesting to how big a pumpkin can get.

  11. I is so cool. I can’t believe that there is a 2,009 pound pumpkin.

  12. AMAZING

  13. Pretty satisfying knowing that a pumpkin can take over the world

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