To anyone who's found an overlooked zucchini in the garden and, while chucking the lunker into the compost bin, wondered how hard it could be to grow a giant pumpkin: You have no idea.
A great pumpkin, or Curcurbita maxima, is a hybrid of culture and science, the result of hours spent spraying the undersides of leaves to fight pests, of tracking down the best seaweed cultivar from Maine for nutrients, of vigilantly squishing vine borers and fending off foaming stumps, all the while hoping against hope that the underlying sand and fiber mat has foiled any burrowing creature from deciding it's really an orange condo.
All of which is for naught if things go wrong on moving day.
"Yes, I have dropped them," Travis Gienger volunteered. "Yes, they have broken. It's devastating."
Gienger, 30, has been growing giant pumpkins for half his life, ever since he first entered a 380-pounder in the youth division of the Minnesota State Fair -- and won. He'd always liked gardening, encouraged by his grandma. "Grandma was a huge supporter of anything I'd do," he said, recalling that first entry. The whole family had gone to the fair, stopping first at the horse barns. "Then Grandma stood up and died of a heart attack, right there," he said. "She never got to see my pumpkin. So there's a little bit of sentimental value of putting one in the fair each year."
This has been a challenging growing season, what with a chilly spring bolting into a sweltering summer, said Gienger, who owns Waterstone Landscaping in East Bethel, and is a horticulture and landscape instructor at Anoka Technical College.
Earlier this summer, he spent about two hours a day in the pumpkin patch, pruning and shaping vines, and reburying them at intervals to boost the energy funneled toward the pumpkins. At one time, the vine fueling his giant covered 1,225 square feet.
Nowhere was there the legendary saucer of milk. "That's a myth," Gienger said of the folklore that involves a sort of intra-vine-nous feeding system, although it's true that calcium is beneficial for cell division and growth.
As the vines bloomed, he hand-pollinated several blossoms, then determined which of the baby pumpkins might aspire to the big leagues. It's a gamble. "There are people who believe they only pollinate one, and that is it," he said.
While frequent rains contributed toward the 100 gallons of water needed daily, "all that rain means all this humidity." Leaves struggling to release excess moisture into humid air can result in oozing vines and the dreaded foaming stump, where the stem weeps and starts to rot. Gienger battled that earlier this month, lugging a couple of fans out to the garden to dry out the stem.
His pumpkin continued to grow.
How much a behemoth weighs at any given moment is hard to say. Growers estimate weight using a rule of thumb based on circumference. "But they can weigh heavy, they can weigh light," Gienger said. "This one, it's getting what we call cantalouping," referring to the pattern of rough netting over part of the skin. That's not necessarily a bad thing, given that giant pumpkins rarely resemble what most of us lug home for Halloween. The comparison to lounging sumo wrestlers is common -- and spot on.
Getting a pumpkin to a weighing scale involves patience, padding and the hoisting power of a front-end loader. Eight straps attached to a D-ring are gradually worked around and under the pumpkin, which then is placed on a pallet covered with Styrofoam. At the State Fair, entrants stop first at the hog barn scales before they land in their familiar spot in the circular Agriculture-Horticulture pavilion.
Packing on the pounds
Two key numbers to keep in mind:
The world record pumpkin is 1,810.5 pounds, grown last year by Chris Stevens in New Richmond, Wis.
The Minnesota record pumpkin is 1,579 pounds, grown in 2009 by Chad Revier of New London.
These are the pumpkins of a pumpkin farmer's dream -- and bank account. Stevens' pumpkin topped the scales at Stillwater's Harvest Fest. The winner there earns $2,000. If it sets a new state record, that's another $1,000. A contest in Maine pays $2,500, and Colorado has several lucrative weigh-offs.
But the really big money is the Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off in Half Moon Bay, Calif., where the winner gets $6 a pound. Last year's 1,535-pound victor, with added bonuses, earned its grower more than $10,000.
"If I ever get a world record, the first thing I'm going to do is hire a sports agent," Gienger said. Here's why: Through an online auction by the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, one of Stevens' world-record seeds sold for $1,625 -- doubling the old record price of $850. Most big seeds, it must be noted, sell for far less. Gienger once paid $150 for a seed "and it was a bust," although it's hard to know if the culprit was genetics, conditions or care. Or luck.
Gienger's jumbo pumpkin is a cross of a 1325 Hopkins with a 1258 Rodine, and yes, those numbers are the weights of the pumpkins from which those seeds were harvested. The genetics are well mapped: That 1258 Rodine was the fruit of a 1678 Hunt and a 1658 Young.
While respecting such "family vines," Gienger also paid homage to Mother Nature. "I'm a firm believer that in every pumpkin, there's one seed that has the magic bullet."
His pumpkin continued to grow.
Living in the right latitude
The Minnesota State Fair's top premium for giant pumpkins is $300. Nurturing giant pumpkins isn't just an American pursuit, either; people grow them in Spain and Slovenia, in Zimbabwe and Japan, in Australia and Canada. Still, Gienger said, "most world records come from this latitude."
He can't imagine not having a great pumpkin in his patch each year. "I do it 60 percent for me, but 40 percent is for others who see these pumpkins and it just makes them happy." Maybe it's just the sight of so much possibility realized.
Which brings us to a final Minnesota connection, via the late "Peanuts" cartoonist and St. Paul native Charles Schulz. In the days before Halloween, one of Schulz's story lines would involve Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin to rise from the patch it deems the most sincere. Linus -- and thus, all of us -- believes that the Great Pumpkin will bypass anyone who doubts its existence.
Having said that, fairgoers will have to trust that Gienger's pumpkin exists because, well, it's not at the fair. As the weigh-in day approached, Gienger's pumpkin continued to grow.
With an eye toward actually making some money (although wise enough to avoid calculating the potential dollars of prize money per hour of labor), he made the decision: He would bypass the fair and go for a record. Minnesota's is in his sights. The world's? Could be. He'll likely bring the pumpkin to Stillwater's fest on Oct. 8 to learn if this latest gamble will pay off.
Grandma, he figures, will understand.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185