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Weigh-off master of ceremonies Howard Schwartz announced this year’s winning pumpkin weight: 433 pounds, enough for a lot of pies.

Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

Growing giant pumpkins nurtures a neighborhood

  • Article by: ERIN ADLER
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • October 16, 2012 - 11:59 AM

When you ask members of the Kelly Drive Pumpkin Growers Association what their favorite part of the annual weigh-off event is, you'll get a few different answers.

Pumpkin grower Bob Brunner gets a kick out of the parade. The association's secretary, Jennifer Griffin-Wiesner, loves the spontaneous dance party that takes place in the street after the results are announced.

But nearly everyone in the neighborhood agrees that the annual Golden Valley event owes its success to a combination of community-building and friendly competition, which comes in the form of growing giant pumpkins.

"It has different meaning and importance to different people, but we're all about the community aspect of it, and that's the overarching reason for it happening the way it does," said Griffin-Wiesner, a resident since 1998.

But that doesn't mean the pumpkin-growing isn't serious business for some residents.

"We're giving someone a purpose," said association President Chris Finseth, a 19-year resident. "Bob Brunner's got a purpose -- he wants to grow a 1,000-pound pumpkin. The decorating committee wants things to look a certain way. And everybody likes to meet new people and be involved in something."

Now in its 16th year, the weigh-off -- this year held on Oct. 6 at the intersection of Kelly Drive and Duluth Street -- has grown from a small group of neighbors gathering at a cul-de-sac to a major event with a parade, a DJ, pony rides, kids' games, hayrides and custom-made T-shirts. This year, more than 700 people attended despite the chilly weather.

About 25 to 30 families help with the event, beginning in April with the distribution of free pumpkin seeds to anyone who wants to try to grow them.

Pumpkin-growing pride

Over the years, residents have learned quite a bit about growing big pumpkins. The association's motto, "All for one and one per vine," reflects the idea that you have to pluck smaller pumpkins from the vine to get the big one.

"Everybody kind of knows what you have to do to grow a giant pumpkin," said Finseth, who staffs the event's education booth to teach people about growing the giant gourds. "It's just a matter of having the discipline to do it."

Five years ago the association began challenging neighbors to grow giant sunflowers as well, and now the tallest sunflower and the sunflower with the biggest head are also measured.

About 20 families try to grow pumpkins each year, but only about eight specimens make it to the weigh-in.

After a dramatic drumroll and the Herculean task of placing each pumpkin on the scale, this year's winner was the Brunner family's pumpkin. Weighing 433 pounds, it got named "Wannabe Bigger" because Brunner had hoped to get closer to the 1,000-pound mark.

Brunner has won for six out of the past seven years, and in 2009 he grew the event's largest pumpkin on record, weighing 881.5 pounds.

He said growing enormous pumpkins requires sunshine, plenty of space, lots of water and a quality seed -- he uses Dill's Atlantic Giant variety. But there are no guarantees.

"You have to start with good genetics, and then it's a little bit of luck and Mother Nature," he said.

Other pumpkin growers take a different route. Griffin-Wiesner's pumpkin won for best color and texture this year because it never ripened and remained light green.

"People keep asking me how we got our pumpkin this year and I've said neglect, basically," she said with a laugh.

Inspiring the community

The Kelly Drive Pumpkin Growers Association began as an idea hatched by several residents at a Christmas party 17 years ago. Since then, the association and event have flourished. Three neighborhood couples were recognized with the Golden Valley City Council's Envision Award in 2010 for their community-building efforts.

Neighbors take turns as president and in other roles, in addition to hosting monthly meetings. The group participates in the Golden Valley Days Parade and holds a July picnic, along with other impromptu gatherings. They give gifts when babies are born or a neighbor gets sick.

Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris, who revved up the crowd before the weigh-off, said the event's success has inspired other Golden Valley neighborhoods to hold their own gatherings.

"I always say that if Norman Rockwell was still around, this would be right out of one of his paintings," he said.

Griffin-Wiesner, whose teenage son helped with the kids' games this year, said it brings people together from all walks of life.

"My favorite part of the whole deal is that my kids have grown up thinking, 'This is how you do community.' And that will have ripple effects you can't even anticipate," she said.

Erin Adler is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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