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A pumpkin that’s large enough to be the coach for Cinderella

Shades of Charlie Brown. When will the Great Pumpkin appear? Will it be even greater, or at least heavier, than last year's? Have the drought and heat taken their toll, or will Utah's devoted giant-pumpkin growers overcome those obstacles and set a new record?

Growing giant pumpkins or giant squash may seem like fun, but it is not a lighthearted commitment. It takes time, it takes water, it takes soil, it takes fertilizer and it takes genetics. Growers throughout the world closely track the genetics of these giants. While you will not find their genealogy in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, they have pedigrees as long as some racehorses.

The story starts with a grower by the name of Howard Dill, who started planting a pumpkin variety called Atlantic Giant. With careful selection and diligent promotion, he literally moved growing giant pumpkins from a garden pastime to a horticultural sport. It has become a hybrid combination of the Super Bowl, the World Series and the Olympics rolled into one as the potential record breakers are brought in by their proud owners. Just a few years ago, the record-holding pumpkins weighed in under 550 pounds. In 1996, the first pumpkin to tip the scales at more than 1,000 pounds was grown in Ohio. Last year's world record was a 1,262 pound monster grown by Geneva Emmons of Washington State.

The Intermountain area hasn't yet produced pumpkins as large as that, but they are still garden behemoths. Bruce Orchard, of Bountiful, grew the new Utah State record pumpkin in 2001.

His winner tipped, or almost crushed, the scales at 777.5 pounds. While their pumpkins have yet to reach the proportions of national winners, a small but dedicated group of growers here is hoping for a record breaker this year.

Orchard is no stranger to the state record. He held it for several years with a 620.5 lb. champion he grew in 1997. Although that heavyweight was eventually surpassed, Orchard overtook his competitors last year.

His introduction to the "sport" came 10 years ago from another pumpkin enthusiast, Ray Tolman, also of Bountiful. Tolman good-naturedly complains that he taught many others to grow the pumpkins and they have ended up beating him at his own game. Both Orchard and Tolman network and teach others how to grow the gigantic orbs.

For a quick primer, Orchard agreed to share some of his secrets. Although no one will be planting pumpkins until next spring, his advice is to start now.

He spends every fall getting ready to grow his prize winners. His secret is in the soil. Each year he brings in tons of organic matter to cover and amend his 2,500-square-foot pumpkin patch. His choices include peat moss, alfalfa hay, leaves and, this year, truckloads of steer manure.

"What you put down in the fall is the key," he said. "It won't do you any good to put it down in the spring." Orchard's fertilizer regime is not your common everyday back-yard garden program. He usually uses a liquid fertilizer but varies that according to the plant needs.

"I start with a high phosphorous program to promote roots and to promote blossoms. I also use a high nitrogen fertilizer before the blossoms set. After blossoms set, I switch to a 20-20-20 or 14-14-14 complete fertilizer to keep the plants growing. In addition to the liquid fertilizer, I also use a slow release fertilizer called Osmocote to supplement the nutrients.

"At the end of the season during their last month of growth, I switch to a high potash fertilizer. Under normal circumstances we don't need to add potash in Utah, but it helps to thicken the cell walls so the pumpkins are more durable. I also spray the plants throughout the season with a mixture of seaweed and fish emulsion.

As mentioned previously, plant genetics are critical. Orchard has gone to the Northwest to get his seeds because that is where the current winners seem to come from. An interesting horticulture anomaly is that although pumpkins are a warm weather crop, the biggest pumpkins are produced in cooler climates with longer days during the summer.

"Our climate is much warmer and drier that most areas where they are producing the prize winners," Orchard explains. "I got some seed from a 567.5 lb. pumpkin and have been crossing and saving the seeds to get a type that is more likely to tolerate our summer heat and low humidity. It takes 2-3 years to select plants that will tolerate our heat."

To help his pumpkins cope with the heat, he covers the patch with netting to prevent sunburn from the intense summer sunshine. He also has a mist system to cool the vines down during the hottest part of the year.

As incredible as it might seem, these giants are produced in about three month's time. He usually lets the fruit set on the vine about the first week in July. Since the national weigh-offs are held the first weekend in October, the pumpkins grow to their mammoth size in some 90 days. (Do the math; 1,200 pounds in 90 days means the biggest pumpkins gain some 13 pounds each day.)

The plants are not immune to potential pest problems. Orchard has a regular program to control aphids. He also dusts for squash bugs, because they are a serious problem. This year he had to deal with white grubs that he attributes to his bringing in truckloads of steer manure.

His advice to beginners is to prepare their soil this fall. "These plants have such an extensive root system that you have to give them room to grow. The roots spread more than 20 feet out from the plants. Most people don't want to expend the effort to fix that much soil. You need a good seed source and an interest in growing the plants. You also need a lot of luck."

So will he hold his crown for another year? His current champion is at about 600 lbs. and still has another week to grow. Given the fact that they are gaining at about 55-60 lbs. per week, he might still hold the crown for another year.

Eat your heart out, Charlie Brown. The Great Pumpkin does not magically appear. It is grown.

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