CORVALLIS, Ore. – One small seed is all it takes to produce the gigantic pumpkins entered in fierce competitions around the world, including the record set in 2016 with a 2,624.6-pounder that weighed almost as much as a Volkswagen bug.
Maybe you won’t achieve quite that size but plant ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’ and you’ll grow a whopping pumpkin, said Jim Myers, a vegetable breeder for Oregon State University.
“I’ve had these types growing in fields and without doing anything special to them I’ve gotten 400-pounders,” he said. “They certainly need plenty of water and lots of space to grow. People who grow them competitively have their own secret formulas that they don’t talk about and use different strategies. It’s a very small group that does it competitively and they’re very fanatical about it.”
Modern monster pumpkin genetics go back to grower Howard Dill, a Nova Scotia farmer who spent 30 years selectively breeding giant pumpkins. He came up with ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’ – and every world champion since has come from offspring of those seeds.
Dill reinvigorated giant-pumpkin competitions in 1978 by breaking a 75-year-old record set in 1903 by William Warnock, whose 403-pound oddity was then displayed at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Dill’s champion 438.5-pound pumpkin sounds wimpy next to those grown today, but it was outlandish enough to gain a spot in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” Dill held the world record four years straight and landed in the Guinness World Records book in 1981 with a 493.5-pounder.
To grow a monster pumpkin, it takes a monster amount of land, water and fertilizer. A single pumpkin can cover 1,200 square feet and the big boys need up to 500 gallons a week. If you’d like to try, Myers offered the following advice:
- Use ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’ seeds. Competitive growers seek out offspring of the champions, but be aware seeds are expensive – a single seed of a champion has been auctioned for as much as $1,600. For beginners, find seed online from local mail-order nurseries
- Germinate monster pumpkin seeds at air temperatures of 65 to 75 degrees and soil temperatures of 70 to 90 degrees.
- Grow pumpkins indoors from seed and move the starts to your garden about five to seven weeks later. Plant in late May after the last frost.
- Full sun is important – avoid sites with full or partial shade.
- Avoid soil compaction in the field. Some growers use stepping stones or boards to minimize impact during the season.
- Place plastic around the base of the pumpkin about two weeks before planting to bring the soil temperature to about 60 degrees. A high tunnel or hoop house can also be used, especially during the early part of the season to create a warmer environment for the plant.
- Provide your pumpkin with plenty of room to spread – a single plant may use as much as 1,200 square feet, or roughly a 40-foot diameter circle.
- Remove enough flowers and fruit – pumpkins are actually fruits – to force the plant to put all its energy into producing one behemoth fruit instead of lots of smaller fruits.
- Hand-pollinate pumpkins to increase the number of seeds that develop and the likelihood for bigger fruits. Pull off the petals of male flowers, which look like straight stalks, and dab these on the female flowers, which have little round ball-shaped ovaries at their base.
- Give pumpkins 130 days or more to mature. Because of this, they are best suited to western Oregon.
- Check soil daily. The ground needs to be evenly moist – but not soggy – at all times. Keep water off foliage to discourage disease.
- Apply aged manure in fall or in spring put down compost, up to 5 cubic yards per plant. Then use a fertilizer periodically through the season. Apply lime in fall to bring soil to a more neutral pH if a test determines it is on the acid side. Fertilize every two weeks or so with decomposed manure, compost or fertilizer.
- Maintain a weed-free area around plants.
- Stake down or bury leaf nodes along the vine. These will root and help prevent wind from rolling the vines.
- You can place the growing pumpkin on a large piece of cardboard or piece of wood to repel soil-dwelling insects.
- As the fruit gains size, shade it to prevent scalding and reduce overheating. The skin will also remain more flexible and the fruit will be less likely to split.
- Harvest your pumpkin at the end of the season just before the first frost. It won’t color to the bright orange of a jack-o’-lantern type, but it will appear pale yellow to orange-ish red when it is ready.
- To qualify as a pumpkin and not a squash, the surface area must be shaded red, pink or yellow, rather than blue, gray or green.
- At harvest time, be careful that the pumpkin does not develop cracks, which will disqualify you in competitions.
After you’ve entered your pumpkin in weigh-off competitions, you might be able to sell it to businesses. Casinos or restaurants will sometimes purchase a champion and contract with a professional pumpkin carver to create a short-lived sculpture, Myers said. Or you can roast the seeds. Be forewarned, though, the flesh is not very palatable.
“It’s something that’s interesting to do. There’s not a lot of practicality. There might be a little prize money and it’s good for notoriety,” Myers said.
— Kym Pokorny
- GROWING ATLANTIC GIANT PUMPKINS
- How to Grow a Giant Pumpkin!
- How to grow a giant pumpkin
- How to Grow Huge Pumpkins
- Pumpkin Culture
- How to Plant Pumpkins
- Growing Fall Pumpkins and Gourds
- How to Fertilize Pumpkin Plants
- How to Grow Pumpkins
- Step 1.
- Step 2.
- Step 3.
- Step 4.
- Step 5.
- Step 6.
- Step 7.
- Step 8.
- Step 9.
- How to Grow a Giant Pumpkin
- How to Grow Giant Pumpkins
- How to Grow a (Record-Setting?) Giant Pumpkin
- Find a Plus-Size Pumpkin Seed
- Prepare Your Soil
- Plant Your Seeds
- Coax a Giant
GROWING ATLANTIC GIANT PUMPKINS
Whether you are a current grower or a newcomer, all the information you need to grow your own GIANT pumpkin or to become a Port Elgin Pumpkinfest Grower is contained in this area of the website.
Click here to download a simple two-page “how-to” to help you grow a giant pumpkin and don’t forget to visit our seed inventory to find that special seed to grow you that big one!
The Giant Vegetable Growers of Ontario have made their 10th Anniversary Summer Newsletter available to everyone who is interested. Click here to download a PDF copy of the newsletter
How to Grow a Giant Pumpkin!
1. Prepare soil by adding mixture of manure, peat moss, granular fertilizer and compost (leaves, grass, fruit, vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, etc). Rotor-till into soil and keep soil as loose as possible. Ensure you have lots of earthworms to process the decaying material and provide valuable nutrients for the plants. Ideal ph is between 6.5 and 7.2.
2. Start of May, file edges of seed, except for the pointed end, with a nail file or fine sandpaper and then soak in water overnight. Wrap in damp paper towel and place in plastic bag in warm place (at least 26° C). This process is called germination.
3. Once seed starts to split and you can see root emerge (in about 24-48 hours), plant them in 4″ pots (equal mixture vermiculite, perlite, peat moss). Fertilize with 10-52-10 when transplanting. Place pots in a heat tray at 21-23°C. A fluorescent light placed a few inches above the pot will help your seedling ‘green-up’ faster and prevent the stem from getting ‘leggy’. The ‘seed leaves’ will appear first and then the first “true leaf’ will appear in the centre. If roots start outgrowing pot, and the weather is uncooperative to transplant directly outdoors, transplant into 12” pots lined with old grocery bags with holes in bottom (will help with later transplants). Again fertilize with 10-52-10 to prevent shock.
4. Pumpkins like full all-day sun, good well drained soil, and lots of room to grow.
5. Around May 20th, plant outside in garden under mini greenhouses or hoophouses to keep warm. Place plant and bag in hole in ground and tear away bag. Place the seedling in the ground up to the bottom of the seed leaves, insuring that the first true leaf, the one in the middle, is facing the opposite direction that you want your main vine to run. The soil temperature should be kept over 22°C. A small candle in a sand-filled jar will keep the temperature even on a chilly night. Transplant with 10-52-10 to gets roots well established.
6. June 1st, switch to an all purpose fertilizer 20-20-20 every 10-14 days. For large plants feed up to 100L per plant. When the air temperature rises about 23°C the greenhouses can be removed but remember to protect the plant whenever there is the threat of cool temperatures, especially overnight.
7. As your vine grows, it will sprout secondary vines. These vines should be nurtured as the mine vine is, however, off these secondaries will grow tertiary vines (sucker vines). These vines rob the plant of valuable nutrients and should be pinched off when they appear. Lay the vines out in a ‘Christmas Tree’ pattern (main vine as the ‘trunk ‘and secondary vines as the ‘branches’) so they can be maintained and excess sucker vines can be pruned off. This also gives room for weeding and feeding. Weed until the pumpkins are big enough to crowd out competition.
8. Begin to watch for insect problems. The cucumber beetles are small yellow and black striped beetles which eat leaves. The vine borer tunnels into the vines and saps the energy out of the plant. Sometimes aphids will attack the underside of the leaves. There are many insecticides and organic sprays available to control these situations.
9. Pumpkins produce both male and female flowers. Males have longer stems and females have a short stem with a bulb (or baby pumpkin) under the blossom. The males will be the first to show and will be followed by the females about a week or so after.
10. July 1st-20th – watch for male and female flowers, cover these flowers with plastic baggies and when female opens (only for a couple of hours one day), pollinate the female by cutting male flowers from the plant and gently rubbing the pollen all over the segments in the female flower. (Re-cover to stop insect cross pollination). If you only have one plant and are not concerned about preserving the lineage of your pumpkin’s genetic line, you can let the bees do this work for you.
11. When a pumpkin has reached the size of a basketball, choose the best pumpkin on main vine and remove all other pumpkins and flowers. This ensures the plant feeds just one pumpkin and allows it to grow into a giant. It will grow very fast and can grow up to 22.5 kg a day at peak growth.
12. As it grows, bury vines to encourage roots along the vine. Prune off sucker vines. Keep feeding and watering.
13. Protect your pumpkin with large 6’x 6′ shelter and slope the roof so no water drips on it. Protect pumpkin from the wind.
14. Mid-August – the main vine should be allowed to grow to a minimum of 15′, secondaries should grow to a minimum of 8′. After these lengths have been reached and when the vines reach the perimeter of the patch, pinch off the very end of the new growth and bury the ends of the vines. Cover pumpkins on cool nights. Many growers are now using natural products to feed their pumpkins (fish/seaweed liquids, molasses etc)
15. September should bring you a pumpkin over 600 pounds, so time to look into attending Port Elgin Pumpkinfest!
Remember it is only 125-150 days from seed to harvest, so don’t start too soon.
Good luck growing!
How to grow a giant pumpkin
If you’ve ever wondered how people win pumpkin-growing competitions, get ready for some seriously strange gardening.
Words: Nadene Hall
These tips and tricks come from amateur experts in the USA, the champions of giant pumpkin growing.
You will need (preferably):
• Pumpkin seed “Atlantic Giant” (NZ record 789.5kg, average 180-230kg), available from garden centres
• Seed pots (to start your seedlings off) in a warm spot (ie the kitchen window)
• Soil temperature 18°C or above
• A deep, loamy, well-drained soil, with well-rotted manure and compost dug in, in a sunny position, protected from wind
• Frost protection (cloche, cold frame) if needed
• Fertiliser (preferably liquid fertiliser)
• Water (and lots of it)
Start your seedlings off in a warm spot, especially if you get spring frosts. Use a good quality seedling mix and make sure you feed them well.
You can’t let the young plant get frosted, but getting it into your prepared bed is also important. You can build up a mound (about 10cm high) and plant it out in September (or earlier if you’re confident of soil temperature, over 18°C ), but it will probably need some sort of cover for frost-protection.
In the USA, to get the world record-size pumpkins using “Atlantic Giant”, competitors there use heating coils in the mound and create a special cloche, to make sure the soil stays above 18°C and the plant is protected.
Keep your seedling well watered but not water-logged. The experts recommend starting off feeding with a fertiliser than is high in phosphorous (for root growth), then gradually shift to a more balanced fertiliser with higher nitrogen, then – just prior to fruit set – use a higher potassium formulation. The plant will grow for around 60 days.
As the vine grows, cover it with soil; this will encourage the vine to grow out further – giant pumpkin growers have found the biggest pumpkins tend to grow about 3m from the main tap root. The best pumpkin plants have large number of leaves (some say the optimum is 800 leaves) to pump energy through the vine and into your chosen pumpkin.
When flowers start appearing, you want to find the perfect female flower. Males are a long stem, then a flower. Females are a stem, then the small pumpkin shape, then the flower. The perfect female will have a stem that is at 90° to the vine (meaning maximum feed can flow as it gets bigger and the vine has to move to accommodate its size). To be absolutely sure of pollination, use a brush inside the male flower, then “paint” the female. Once you’re sure pollination is complete, remove all but the 4-5 best-looking female flowers. Measure them each day and make your choice based on growth rates.
Once you have picked your winners (it’s recommended you have a couple of plants so you can hedge your bets) remove the other pumpkins, and very carefully move your chosen one so there is some slack in the vine (make a U shape in it) – this is so as the pumpkin grows, it’s not going to stretch the vine and risk damaging, or worse, breaking, the connection between vine and pumpkin.
If you experience a dry summer then you need to water your pumpkin every day. Continue feeding a liquid fertiliser, with an emphasis on slowly increasing the potassium levels as it grows. Don’t water or fertilise overhead, or you can cause downey mildew.
When your pumpkin gets to about basketball size, you may start to get stem stress, as the vine will be stretching over the shoulders of the pumpkin. You may need to cut off side tap roots so the main feeding vine can rise off the ground as the pumpkin grows; you may even need to move the pumpkin to keep it perpendicular to the vine. This is an incredibly delicate process that may take a week and is very dangerous as the connection can easily break. Be careful and very, very slow in every move you make – there will be no warning of a break, just one final snap.
One final tip – keep the pumpkin (not the plant) under shade; this helps prevent splits forming, to give you a great-looking pumpkin, as well as a big one!
There is an increasing number of giant pumpkin competitions on around NZ, held in April.
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How to Grow Huge Pumpkins
Most champion pumpkin growers have their own methods and secrets for producing the gigantic pumpkins that win pumpkin contests every year. Of course, it is necessary to start with the right kind of pumpkin seed, one that is selectively bred to produce the really big pumpkins such as “Prizewinner Hybrid” which, with the proper growing methods, can produce pumpkins in the 300-pound range.
Pumpkin plants need a lot of sun. Choose the sunniest place you have; remember that pumpkins are sensitive and will need shelter from wind and frost. Try to protect pumpkins from the worst of the elements by covering them during heavy rains, or putting up some kind of barrier to protect the vines from high winds or using shade tents during summer’s hottest days.
Pumpkins like and need a lot of water, but don’t plant pumpkins in wet or dense soil. They need good, well-drained soil. You can dig it up by hand. Don’t use a tractor, pumpkin roots don’t go down very far. Prepare the soil in early spring, as soon as the ground is warm. Fertilize the patch with a good four inches of rotting cow manure. Pumpkins do best in soil that is slightly acid or nearly neutral.
If you live in a part of the country where there is still danger of frost in late April or early May, start pumpkin seeds indoors about two weeks before planting. Sow one seed for every four-inch peat pot filled with grow mix. Keep the pots watered, never let them dry out.
How to Plant Pumpkins
When seedlings have the fourth or fifth leaf, set them outdoors in hills about the size of a pitcher s mound, one plant to a hill. Protect pumpkin seedlings the first few weeks with plastic-covered frames. Space each hill at least 20 feet apart.
Growing Fall Pumpkins and Gourds
How to Fertilize Pumpkin Plants
Pumpkin plants have two kinds of flowers, male and female, which appear in early July. The male flowers show up first, followed by the females. Look out for the first female flowers. Look for vines to be strong and well-established before letting a female flower set fruit. It might help to break off the first female on each vine and wait for the second or third, when the vines are at least ten feet long. A female is easy to recognize: she has a baby pumpkin at the base of each flower.
You need a big vine to produce a big pumpkin, so in a sense you’re choosing the vine before the pumpkin. When you find a vine that’s strong enough and a female flower on the verge of opening, put a bag of cheesecloth over it for the night to keep the insects out. The next morning pick a fresh male bloom, trim off the corolla or outer petals, and rub the pollen-laden stamen in around the center of the newly opened female bloom.
How to Grow Pumpkins
This is just the beginning of a summer of long but rewarding work. What you have started is actually a pumpkin-producing factory. Remember that there are 100 or more leaves to each vine and if you are trying to grow a 300-pound pumpkin, each leaf is responsible for up to four pounds of weight in your pumpkin. Every leaf, every stem, every hair roots is now receiving sunlight, absorbing water, and blending nutrients. All are traveling down the all-important stem to your prize pumpkin.
Giant pumpkins balloon out from the vine and if precautions are not taken, they will tear away and lose touch with their all-important stem. Since vines put out roots at every leaf, tear out the roots of the vine where it is close to the pumpkin. This will give it free room to grow without damage to the vine. Gently train vines away from the pumpkin to prevent it from crushing them, try giving them a nudge in the right direction every day.
When two or three fruits on each plant reach the size of softballs, remove all but the most promising one and start to prune the pumpkin plants. After the primary vine has reached 20 feet, pinch off the tips and the side shoots so the vines won’t divert resource from the fruit. Break off all the other female flowers A potential prizewinner is forming. The work of the plant now must go entirely toward nurturing this fruit alone.
It is important to remember that the only thing that will increase the size of the fruit comes out of the vines and the vines must get support from the natural root. For growing really big pumpkins, the most important things to remember are seeds, soil, sunshine, and water.
By mid-August the plants are pulling in water and nutrients at a great rate. Nighttime is when pumpkins do their growing, most expand two inches in circumference every night.
If it’s a dry season, give each plant 15 to 20 gallons of water twice a week. Water in the evening, and water only the base of the plant to keep the leaves dry, which reduces the risk of disease.
Having obtained your seeds, start them off as soon as possible in a small pot in a warm, bright place, like a sunny windowsill. Sow individually just under the surface into 3″ pots of multi-purpose compost and germinate indoors at 20 to 24 degrees. A handy tip is to plant the seed sideways into the compost to avoid water ‘sitting’ on it and causing rot. In a week or so, two weeks at most, the seed should have germinated.
Once the plants starts to grow, keep them warm in a greenhouse or coldframe. Growth will be quite fast, so transfer into larger pots if the roots start coming through the bottom of the pot.
Start hardening off by opening the frame or greenhouse in the day and once the risk of frost has passed, plant out, preferably under a cloche until the plant gets too large.
Pumpkin plants grow very big, so your pumpkin patch should measure at least 4.6m by 6.1m (15ft by 20ft). For planting, dig a hole about 2 feet square and deep, fill with good compost or mix well rotted manure into the soil. The soil should end up slightly mounded.
You need to take your soil improvement techniques to a higher level to grow a really huge pumpkin. Many growers use well-rotted horse manure. Pumpkins, like courgettes and melons, need warmth around their leaves and roots. Horse manure has an ‘open’ structure which means it warms the soil faster than richer cow or pig manure. Broadcaster and author, Toby Buckland, in an article in Kitchen Garden magazine (Feb.2012) says that he is using ‘enhanced’ green compost in an attempt to grow a record-breaking pumpkin this year. This is made from the contents of the council-collected green or brown bins and contains food waste as well as the usual garden clippings. This gives it the higher nutrient content that pumpkins love. The compost gets very hot so all pathogens are killed and when it’s blended with soil for your pumpkin bed, it should encourage fast rooting and help keep frosts at bay.
Pumpkins need lots of water, so be sure to water them daily – don’t let them dry out!
Once you have 3 fruits starting to form, remove any further flowers that develop. You need to concentrate everything into just one pumpkin. Once the three small pumpkins have started to grow, choose the best one and pinch off the others.
Toby Buckland suggests “When the fruit reaches football size, it’s time to place it on its side on a bed of straw with the umbilical stem kinked into a ‘U’ where it meets the stalk. This ensures the stem doesn’t stretch to breaking point as the gourd grows, while the straw acts as a soft bed, keeping the skin safe from stones in the soil”. It can also be an idea at this stage to put the pumpkin on a palette, if you can lay your hands on one. This will help with moving your pumpkin when it’s grown into a whopper!
Some slug defence is always a good idea as well!
Click here for more information on growing pumpkins in our article ‘How to grow pumpkins for Halloween’.
More useful information can also be found at the following website www.allotment.org.uk.
How to Grow a Giant Pumpkin
For many of us, fall means a bounty of pumpkins for pies and jack-o’-lanterns, along with a gathering in of the rest of the autumn harvest. But for thousands of backyard gardeners, fall is the time of reckoning and–for a lucky few–glory. These are the growers of the heavyweights. For them, pumpkin growing is a competitive sport.
As recently as 16 years ago, the heaviest (official) pumpkin weighed a mere 403 pounds. Since then the world record has been broken nine times. Other than Howard Dill, who held the world record from 1979 to 1982, no one has ever won the world championship more than once. And almost all the world-record pumpkins since 1982 have been grown in small backyard gardens.
Well, not too small. To really appreciate the feat of growing these 800-, 900- or 1,000-pound behemoths, it’s necessary to see one up close. Consider the measurements of the second-largest pumpkin grown in the world in 1994. Its girth was 176 inches (that’s more than 14 1/2 feet around!).
When carved, these beauties will hold a candle for light, as well as two or three members of the family. Or you can bake some 900 pumpkin pies from a single fruit. At the Topsfield Fair in Topsfield, Massachusetts, it took the strength of 12 adults to move a 914-pound pumpkin to the scale. I can’t pass a Honda Civic anymore without thinking that 10 or 12 men could probably roll it onto a tarpaulin and cart it away, too.
Now, with this year’s competition just past and predictions that the largest pumpkins are likely to surpass the benchmark half-ton next season, is a good time to review the latest techniques required to grow the big ones. Believe it or not, you’ll probably need to start now, in the fall, preparing the soil.
How to Grow a Giant Pumpkin
If you ask 10 competitive pumpkin growers how to grow a giant pumpkin, you’re likely to get 10 different answers. It seems everyone has his or her own way of coaxing the most weight out of these giants. But there is a thread of consistency that runs throughout all the instructions, and adhering to three basic tenets will get you well on the way to a world record. Above all else, you need good seed, good soil and good luck.
If you want to grow a world-record pumpkin, you can forget about every variety of pumpkin out there except Howard Dill’s patented ‘Atlantic Giant’. Since 1979, no other pumpkin variety has been a world champion.
Pumpkins are large consumers of all the major plant nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), as well as many minor nutrients like calcium and magnesium and other trace elements. The key for big growth is soil well amended with organic matter. In the fall or early spring, add two to five yards per plant of compost and rotted manures. Cow and horse manures are best. Use chicken manure sparingly and only in the fall. Cover crops of winter rye, plowed down in the spring, are fabulous. The soil pH should be between 6.5 and 6.8.
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 their first year with good seed, some rudimentary help from an experienced grower and a lot of luck. With the right preparation and strategy now and in the spring (see the tips below for planning your assault on the world record), next year you might just be a contender for the world championship!
Ten Steps to A Giant Pumpkin
- Prepare the Soil
Start with a pH test in fall and adjust your pH to between 6.5 and 6.8 by adding sulfur to lower the pH or lime to raise it. Apply three to five yards of composted manure per 30-foot-diameter circle where you expect to plant next spring. Plant a cover crop of winter rye in fall to be turned under in early spring, broadcasting one to two pounds per 1,000-square-foot area.
- Sow Seeds
Start seed indoors in six-inch peat pots about four weeks before your last frost date. Plant the seed with the pointed end of the seed facing down. Keep the soil temperature at 85 to 90oF. Most seeds will emerge within five days.
- Transplant Seedlings
Transplant seedlings into the garden once the first true leaves appear or when roots begin to grow through the peat pot (usually seven to 10 days after germination). Handle with care because pumpkins are easily set back during transplanting.
- Protect Seedlings
Place a “mini-greenhouse” over the seedlings for six weeks to shield plants from wind and frost. These mini-greenhouses can be as simple as two storm windows nailed together to form a teepee or as elaborate as a 4- by 4-foot wooden structure made from 1- by 2-inch lumber nailed together with 6-mil clear plastic stapled to cover the frame. Once seedlings outgrow the mini-greenhouse, use a temporary fence to screen wind. I use “conservation” fence, which is bought with wood end stakes attached and is commonly used at new construction sites. A 100-foot roll cut into three pieces is enough for three 11-foot-diameter areas.
- Pollinate Flowers
Eight to 10 weeks after seed starting, the first female flowers will appear. They’re easy to distinguish because they have a small pumpkin at their base. If you want to get a jump on your rival, you’ll need to hand-pollinate the flowers. In the early morning, locate a freshly opened male flower. Pick it and remove the outer flower petals, exposing the stamen and fresh pollen. Locate a newly opened female flower and gently swab the stigma (internal parts) of the female flower with the pollen-laden stamen. Getting a pumpkin set as early as possible, preferably before July 10, is key. The earlier you set a pumpkin, the longer it has to grow until harvest. Since these monsters can gain 25 pounds a day, losing 10 days in the early part of the season could put you well down the list at your local pumpkin weigh-off.
- Reposition Set Pumpkins
Once a pumpkin has set, its position on the vine becomes extremely important. Most often the stem grows at a very acute angle to the vine. However, for optimal long-term growth, the best position is to have the stem perpendicular to the vine. If yours is not at right angles to the vine naturally, coax it gradually, over about a week’s time, until it is in that position. Be careful, because at this early stage pumpkins may still abort or you may injure the fragile stem.
- Select the Most Promising Pumpkin
If one plant has three strong vines, you could have as many as seven or eight pumpkins set and growing by July 20. Now you must choose the best pumpkin and remove most of the rest. Measure each pumpkin’s circumference at the widest point weekly or daily with a cloth measuring tape. Choose the one that’s growing fastest. Also, keep an eye out for the optimum shape. Young pumpkins that are round and especially tall grow the largest.
- Prune Vines
Begin pruning vines early in the season to discourage random growth and an out-of-control patch. Prune each main vine when it has reached 10 to 12 feet beyond a set fruit. If you have a pumpkin on a vine that is 10 feet from the main root, cut the end of that vine once it is 20 to 24 feet long. Let side shoots off the main vines get no longer than eight feet before cutting off tips. Train side shoots so they are perpendicular to the main vine to accommodate access to the vines and pumpkins. Bury the ends of cut vines to reduce water loss.
During the growing season, most fertility needs of pumpkins can be met by applying water-soluble plant foods once or twice a week over the entire plant area. Give seedlings a fertilizer that stresses phosphorus, such as 15-30-15. Shift to a more balanced formula, such as 20-20-20, once fruits are set. By late July, use a formula that stresses potassium, such as 15-11-29. I apply water-soluble fertilizer at the rate of one to two pounds per week per plant f fruit set until the end of the growing season. Some competitive growers will err on the side of overfertilization. But too much fertilizer can hurt more than help. If the pumpkins start growing too fast, they will literally tear themselves from the vine and explode. A very fine grower in New England told me, “Slow and easy wins the race.” Remember this whenever you feel the urge to overfertilize.
- Keep Track
Measure your pumpkins at least weekly. Gains in circumference can average four to six inches in a 24-hour period. Measure the circumference of your pumpkins first parallel to the ground around the entire pumpkin, from blossom end to stem. Next, measure over the top in both directions: from ground to ground along the axis from stem to blossom end, then perpendicular to the stem-blossom-end axis. Add these three measurements together, then multiply by 1.9 to give an estimate of the pumpkin’s weight.
Don Langevin is author of How-to-Grow World Class Giant Pumpkins (Annedawn Publishing, Box 247, Norton, MA 02766, 1993. $18).
Photography by National Gardening Association
Humongous fruits and vegetables are not so much for eating (though some are actually delicious). They’re for bragging. For showing that something can be done better and bigger than ever before. And no matter your level of gardening experience, you can grow them too.
Your gourd or onion or radish may not become a record holder—unless you think you can top the 2,624-pound pumpkin grown by Belgian Mathias Willemijns—but you can certainly grow awesomely large produce and flowers in your home garden. It’ll just take research, planning, seeds of varieties that are bred for size, and a well-prepared plot. And a little luck.
The first step is to choose what to grow. We’ve got a list to help you out below. It’s best to plant soon, even though it’s not yet spring. You’ll start the season indoors. Depending on what plant you choose, you’ll need to prepare your soil, then, once you’ve set out your plants, weed, water, and aerate it daily. The process takes work, and you’re going to run into challenges, but there is a big and friendly community out there to help you.
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These varieties are just a start. Once you get comfortable, you can find other plants that were specifically bred for size. For instance, people who compete for giant pumpkins often choose Dill’s Atlantic Giant variety of Cucurbita maxima, a species of domesticated squash. (Some pumpkins are able to move huge amounts of sugar to their fruit, a couple of pounds a day even, by producing more phloem, a complex tissue that helps to store and transport nutrients.) You can even bid at seed auctions for seeds from prizewinning pumpkins.
And what to do with your prize winner? Kevin Fortey, of GiantVeg, a U.K. company, sent his prizewinning cabbage to a school, where it was used in “a maths lesson, science lesson, and cookery lesson and ended up in the school dinner making 1,000 dinners.” He also contributes vegetables to prisons and other institutions for food. Check with local charities, if your winner is edible. For instance, some parks will take large vegetables to feed to herds of bison. Other weigh-offs spectacularly destroy their giant produce (in Littleton, Colorado, by dropping the pumpkins from a crane) and use it for compost.
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Varieties to Try
Dinnerplate Dahlia: These flower blooms can reach eight to ten inches wide, which is bigger than your face. Try Burpee’s Bodacious or this assortment from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
Giant Wax Melon: The wax melon, also known as winter melon, can grow to 40 pounds. It has a mild and slightly sweet flesh and is used in cooking savory dishes such as curries, stews, and stir-fry. You can harvest it young for pickling, or let it grow to maturity. The mature melon can be stored whole for months.
Burdock Root: Burdock has long been used as a medicinal. The root is much used in Japanese cooking, for pickles, braises, soups, and stir-fry. This Takinogawa variety reaches up to three feet in length.
Ailsa Craig Onion: An heirloom sweet onion, it grows from “jumbo to colossal”—up to three pounds, which is a big onion. Try this Ailsa Craig Exhibition, from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
Big Zac Tomato: Bred by a New Jersey gardener from two heirloom varieties, Big Zacs can grow four- to six-pound fruits. (Also check out Supersteak and Giant Belgium.)
Burpee Steakhouse Tomato. Burpee
Mangel-Wurzel: This beetroot is grown mainly for livestock feed, but is also edible for humans when harvested small (although a small mangel-wurzel is still quite large!). Mangels are prized for their keeping attributes and can be stored over winter. There has been a resurgence in growing the crop among modern homesteaders.
Sunflower: The heads of the Mongolian Sunflower variety reach 16 to 18 inches across atop 14-foot stalks, and the seeds are an inch long. The Titan has heads up to 24 inches across.
Russian Cabbage: There is something appealing about a neat row of cabbages that makes you feel productive and prepared for anything. This is one vegetable that is not only edible but tasty at larger sizes.
Chinese Python Snake Bean: Trichosanthes cucumerina, or snake gourd, is a native of China, and can grow up to five feet long. It is said to taste like green beans and can be sautéed or cooked as for summer squash. The best time to harvest it for eating is when the bean is 12 to 30 inches long.
Manpukuji Carrot: The Manpukuji can reach two feet in length and is sweet to boot. Carrots of different varieties thrive in different soils, so check which will suit your soil at FarmingMethod.com. For instance, in a hard, heavy soil, a Chantenay or a round type of carrot will do best.
Atlantic Giant Pumpkin: The mother of all pumpkins. Leave room in the garden patch for your Dill’s Atlantic Giant. (Howard Dill of Nova Scotia bred the Atlantic Giant variety over three decades for various characteristics such as size and color and grew the largest pumpkin in the world four years in a row.)
The 37th Annual Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off in Half-Moon Bay, California. Justin SullivanGetty Images
Where to Get Help
BigPumpkins: Detailed advice from practiced gardeners on raising big pumpkins and more. For instance, stake tomatoes before setting out the plants so that you don’t disturb the roots when you set the stakes. One gardener also lays out a plan for burying drainage pipe beneath the plants, so that the roots grow deep, toward the pipe, where they will be less susceptible to drought.
Burpee: This well-known seed company recommends that once you have set your pumpkin plants out, you select first for those that have the strongest-looking vines, and then choose the sturdiest fruits (grow only one pumpkin to a vine). Pumpkins like lots of sun but not severe heat. You will need to protect them from harsh weather such as extreme heat, hard rains, or high winds.
World Carrot Museum: This site has a lot of excellent advice, among which is, if you encounter trouble growing carrots, try different varieties and work on your soil—you will find something that works. Carrots prefer “deep sandy loam or loamy soils with a loose structure.” Take out any rocks as you work the soil; the carrots will deform if they hit rocks or other stuff as they grow. Dive down the rabbit hole of carrots, their history, composition, cultivation, recipes, record-holding carrots, and carrot trivia here.
Pumpkin Nook: The Pumpkin Nook’s many articles on how to select a good patch, prepare the soil, add fertilizers, start seed, and much more will get you started.
Great Pumpkin Commonwealth: This organization oversees weigh-offs across the U.S., and you can check here to find upcoming ones in your area. The GPC also runs The Big Show, a favorite event of giant-pumpkin enthusiasts, which in 2019 will be held in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in March. Check out the GPC Weigh Off Handbook.
GiantVeg: A family-run business in the U.K. with three generations of prize-winners, including a record 67-inch-circumference sunflower grown by current leader Kevin Fortey’s son Jamie. The company’s website is chock-full of guides and videos on saving seeds, hand-pollinating, caring for and amending soil, and growing huge versions of everything from beetroot to parsnips.
And talk to your local county extension agent for advice on soil, local plant pests, and general knowledge on crops. Go to state and county fairs and get in touch with the local growers’ community and check out the competition.
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Where to Order Seeds
The Burpee seed catalogue has been around since 1881, and its website has hundreds of pages of advice on growing, on finding your plant zone, recipes, and the like.
Johnny’s Select Seeds has been around since the 1970s and was one of nine original signers of the Safe Seed Pledge to not sell genetically engineered seeds. The website’s Growing Library is a storehouse of videos and gardening information, including tips on maintaining high tunnels and calculators for seed amounts and scheduling.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has one of the most beautiful catalogues—you can spend the winter months dreaming of what you’ll grow in the garden. But when you order seeds, remember the work it will take! This family-run company in Missouri hosts festivals and tests its seeds to ensure that they are all non-GMO.
Totally Tomato sells other things besides tomatoes, even a lemon tree. It also has many heirloom tomato and pepper varieties and ships plants as well as seeds.
An Indiana seed company founded in 1866, Gurney’s ships trees and shrubs as well as plants and seeds.
At Holland’s Land O’Giants you can order seeds from prizewinning pumpkins, DVDs on how to grow them, a huge variety of fertilizers, and Mycorrhizae, a beneficial soil fungus that helps the roots of plants take in more nutrients from the soil.
You can also order seeds from other countries, for instance, from GiantVegSeeds in the U.K. Ordering from overseas is a bit more work for gardeners in the U.S., but will allow you to get seeds from prizewinning plants. You will need to get a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and send a copy of it to the seed company. Details are here.
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How to Grow Giant Pumpkins
Any good sumo wrestler eats an enormous amount of food to put on weight. The same is true with your sumo pumpkin. Feed your pumpkin plant every 2 weeks with a water-soluble plant food, such as Miracle-Gro® Water Soluble All Purpose Plant Food, or for easy feeding use Miracle-Gro® LiquaFeed® Tomato, Fruits & Vegetables Plant Food.
Watering Your Pumpkin
Pumpkins are thirsty, and big pumpkins are even more so, but you can easily over-water. Be sure to keep the soil moist, but not wet. Water whenever the soil feels dry to the touch. With enough moisture and nutrition, giant pumpkins can grow over 30 pounds in a single day.
Helping Pumpkins Take Shape
Your big pumpkin might start to flatten a little, so you want to distribute its weight. You can do that by carefully rolling the fruit about every week or so. Move them gently. Gradually reposition the pumpkin so it grows at a ninety degree angle to the main vine. Pests will want a piece of your pumpkin. Plant companion plants like onion, leeks or dill nearby and combat them naturally.
Harvesting Your Pumpkin
Check to make sure the stem has become woody, then cut it from the main vine with a sharp knife, leaving several inches attached to the pumpkin. Depending on the variety you planted, pumpkins mature between 95-110 days after planting. If you can, try to not to harvest pumpkins until the vine dies.
How to Grow a (Record-Setting?) Giant Pumpkin
The bar gets higher almost every year – the 1,000-pound mark was first breached around the turn of the millennium; the current world-record pumpkin weighed in at 2,323.7 pounds, grown by a German gardener in 2014.
World champion growers have turned what was once an innocuous 4-H hobby into a professional pursuit, with big cash prizes instead of just blue ribbons, the seeds of world champion specimens fetching upwards of $1,000 each. But that shouldn’t deter you from seeing how big of a pumpkin you can grow just for the fun of it, not to mention the bragging rights you’ll accrue.
If you want a giant pumpkin next fall, don’t wait until spring to get ready, you have to start preparing the ground now. It’s a race to provide the longest possible growing season and funnel as much nutrients and water as possible into a single pumpkin, all while making sure there are no mishaps with pests, disease, or errant kids, pets, or livestock trampling the plant.
Find a Plus-Size Pumpkin Seed
The first step in growing giant pumpkins is to obtain the right seed. One-thousand-plus pound pumpkins generally result from high-pedigree hybrid seeds, which circulate among the most serious growers and cost from $10 to $100 or more per seed. But virtually all giant pumpkins are descended from a variety called Dill’s Atlantic Giant, which is widely available from seed companies and sells for typical seed prices. Three hundred- to 500-pound specimens are routinely grown with this variety, but you still have to work at it – growing a giant pumpkin requires in-depth horticultural knowledge, a daily dose of TLC for the plant, and, well, a lot of luck.
Prepare Your Soil
- In the fall, till up a 10-foot diameter bed in a sunny, well-drained spot with rich garden soil. Eight or more hours of sun is a must, and if the area is protected from wind by shrubbery or structures, that’s even better.
- Spread 6 inches of composted cow manure over the bed and till it in. This will be the base of fertility for the giant pumpkin next year.
- Sculpt the bed into a low broad mound, like a pitcher’s mound, and cover it for the winter with a straw mulch or a cover crop.
- In late winter/early spring, start the pumpkin seeds in peat pots about a month before the average date of last frost in your area.
Plant Your Seeds
- Once your most vigorous seedling has several leaves, transplant it into the bed that was prepared in the fall. (If you have the space, you can plant more than one seedling if you prepared more than one mound; each seedling should be at least 10 feet apart.)
- Cover the seedling with a cold frame to protect it from late frosts and to warm up the ground, which encourages the pumpkin plant to start growing. This is essentially a mini-greenhouse, but it doesn’t have to be fancy – four stakes with clear 6-mil plastic sheeting stapled over top is sufficient. The cold frame should cover at least a 4-foot diameter area around the young plant.
- Check soil moisture daily. The ground needs to be evenly moist – but not soggy – at all times. Wetting the leaves encourages fungal problems, so always water at ground level (a drip system is ideal for this).
- Fertilize with light doses of nutrients weekly. In the first third of the growing season, concentrate on high nitrogen sources, such as fish emulsion; in the middle third, increase the phosphorus content with products high in bone meal; in the third phase, use products high in potassium, such as greensand. Provide trace minerals with kelp meal throughout the season. For an in-depth discussion of fertilizing techniques for giant pumpkins (including the use of conventional fertilizers – those listed above are organic) .
- Maintain a weed-free zone around the pumpkin plant throughout the growing season.
- Monitor for pests and disease on a daily basis and apply insecticides and fungicides as soon as they appear.
Coax a Giant
- If the growing area is exposed to wind, install a low fence around the pumpkin plant to prevent leaf damage and desiccation. You need the leaves to remain large and supple to provide maximum photosynthetic energy.
- Pick off all flower buds until the pumpkin vine is about 10 feet long. This allows the plants to grow more and larger leaves, which will then support rapid growth of a single pumpkin.
- After the vine’s 10 feet long, allow several flowers to develop into pumpkins, but remove all but the largest fruit after several weeks of growth.
- Spread a bed of sand under the chosen pumpkin to keep it out of contact with the moist earth below. This is essential for preventing rot.
- Gently adjust the chosen pumpkin so the stem is at a perpendicular orientation to the vine. The stems usually start out with an acute angle to the vine, but they are prone to breaking in this arrangement once they become brittle later in the season.
- Erect a canopy of shade cloth over the chosen pumpkin. In full sun, the skin of the fruit hardens earlier, restricting its ultimate size.
- Remove the rootlets that form along the vine for several feet on either side of the pumpkin as it develops. The vine needs to lift freely from the ground as the pumpkin grows, which is prevented by the small roots that form naturally on all pumpkin plants.
- Spread a couple inches of soil over roots that form along other parts of the vines to encourage a larger root system. Water and fertilize the soil under all the vines, not just the main root system, to encourage maximum uptake.
- Prune the lateral vines that develop off the main vine once they reach about 8 feet in length. Though, in general, you want as many leaves as possible to feed energy to the growing pumpkin, the plant begins to divert more energy to vine growth (rather than fruit growth) if the vines are allowed to grow to an excessive length. Many pumpkin growers recommend training the vines into a Christmas tree format, where the longest lateral vines are closest to the planting location, becoming shorter as they move toward the growing tip.
If you can keep up the TLC regime until the first frost of fall (when the leaves will turn brown and die), you should end up with a massive pumpkin. At this point, clip the pumpkin from its stem and find a few friends to help you roll it onto a scale. Most importantly, don’t let all that food go to waste – the giant varieties are suitable for soups, pies, muffins, and any other recipe calling for pumpkin.