10 Steps to a Giant Pumpkin - by Don Langevin
Intrigued by these car-size, half-ton gourds? Start now for
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
with- out 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.
The guru of monster pumpkin growing is Howard Dill.
His behemoths have won more world records than any other grower's. His Atlantic Giant is the variety of choice for anyone who wants to grow a big pumpkin.
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.
Good seed. 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. Good
soil 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
Good luck. 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 text on page 40 for tips on planning your
assault on the world record), next year you might just be a contender for the
1. 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
2. SOW SEEDS. Start seed indoors in six-inch peat pots about four
weeks before your last spring frost date. Plant the seed with the pointed end
of the seed facing down. Keep the soil temperature at 85 to 90 degrees F. Most
seeds will emerge within five days.
3. 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.
4. 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 four- by four-foot wooden structure made from 1x2 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. FERTILIZE. 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 from 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.
10. 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 the book How-to-Grow World Class Giant Pumpkins (Annedawn Publishing, Box 247, Norton, MA 02766; 1993. $17.95). Prices can change.
Additional pumpkin growing is provided on backyardgardener.com pumpkin pages
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Information courtesy of Don Langevin
Last Updated: Fri Sep 06 10:30:00PM CST 1996