How to Grow a Giant Pumpkin
By: Don Langevin
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.