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Growing giant pumpkins can be sport for entire family

As a lifetime gardener, I've considered gardens as gardens and not as sporting events. That definition has changed in the minds of some gardeners, particularly those who are growing giant vegetables. The vegetables that are the most giant are, of course, the giant pumpkins.

This is the Kentucky Derby, the Super Bowl, the World Series or any other super sport event you care to visualize. Each fall, giant pumpkin growers carefully compare the tally sheets from the weigh-offs held around the world to see who wins this year's honors and who might set a new world record.

The results are meticulously maintained by the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth organization. Their information includes the placing of the pumpkins based on weight, the weight of the pumpkins, the growers' names and where they live and where the contest occurred.

Listing of thousand-pound-plus pumpkins winners include growers from most northern U.S. states, many Canadian provinces, Belgium, Italy, Finland, Germany and New Zealand.

Ron Wallace, from Greene, R.I., entered his at the Topsfield Fair Weigh-off. He becomes the very first grower to join the exclusive One Ton Club because he is the only member. His winner topped the scale at 2,009 pounds.

In Utah, the Utah Giant Pumpkin Growers sponsor the official weigh-offs. They gather each fall at a chosen location and weigh each entry on the official scale.

While this year's competition did not produce a state record, it did produce a lot of cheers for Tyler Quigley, who took first place with a 1,475-pound giant. Kyle Fox took second with a 1,171-pound fruit and Ross Bowman took third with a 1,013.5-pound entry.

The logistics of getting a pumpkin that large involve a lot of planning and a lot of work. No sooner had the scales been loaded on the truck to be returned to the warehouse and the pumpkin growers had loaded this year's entries back on the truck or trailer than planning started for next year.

Quigley explains some of the things that he did to get his giant pumpkin this year. Quigley lives in Mountain Green but grows his pumpkins with his partner, Matt McConkie, at an undisclosed location in Weber County.

I asked Quigley to describe his emotions knowing he probably had this year's state winner.

"The Utah Giant Pumpkin Growers weighed 89 pumpkins at the weigh-off on Saturday," he said. "I have been unable to sleep well for the past couple weeks and was nervous until I got this year's pumpkin safely on the scale. I started with four plants and lost two of them to fungus. My third pumpkin developed a crack in the stem end so it was disqualified, so I was left with all of my eggs in one basket."

His goal this season was to join the half-ton club, which includes any grower who produces a pumpkin over 1,000 pounds. He decided in the winter to go with seed from McConkie's 1,338-pound pumpkin from 2011 because it had such a great pedigree.

His plant that produced the winner covered more than 1,000 square feet, which is the size of many houses. All of that energy produced by the gigantic leaves was feeding his single champion. He spent 30-45 minutes each day caring for the plant, pruning it and telling it that it needed to be the winner.

"Our plants grow under shade cloth to protect them from the intense solar radiation in our high elevation. They get watered about one hour each day," Quigley said, explaining how he waters and fertilizes.

"The pumpkins are fertilized three to five times each week with fish emulsion or seaweed," he said. "I apply the nutrients through the sprinkler system and supplement with sprays from a backtrack sprayer."

I asked him what was going to happen to this year's winner. He plans to exhibit the pumpkin at his children's school in Mountain Green, but is undecided as to the pumpkin's ultimate use.

One of his best memories of this year (season) is "driving down from our home in Mountain Green to our pumpkin patch. The time I spent with my wife and daughter on the drive and working with the pumpkins was a highlight of the summer and a great family activity," Quigley said.

I don't know of very many sports that include the entire family like growing giant pumpkins. Try it — but be warned that it might be addictive.

Garden Tips

Don't think of fun with the giant pumpkins ends after their weight is recorded. The second Annual Ginormous Pumpkin Regatta 2012 is Saturday, Oct. 20 from noon-4 p.m. It is at the Sugar House Park Pond at 2199 South, 1400 East, Salt Lake City.

If you have a large enough pumpkin, you do not have to put Peter Pumpkin Eaters's wife in it. Bring your life jacket, hollow out your pumpkin, get in it yourself and use it as a canoe to race across the pond.

If you are more of an observer, visit the Giant Pumpkin Drop on October 27th at Hee Haw Farms. It is not a bird, a plane nor even superman but a great pumpkin dropping the sky and smashing the car underneath. Bring a giant pumpkin to drop and receive a free family pass.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.