Giant pumpkins are one of those stupendous feats of nature that enter the realm of the uncanny. It’s hard to believe in a 1,400-pound squash, even when you’re looking right at it.
But gardeners do grow them, and two that grew over the past summer in Crawford County took honors at an Oct. 13 Stillwater, Minn., weigh-off. John Barlow’s giant pumpkin entry won first place with 1,462.5 pounds, while his friend Caleb Jacobus placed fourth at 1,411.5 pounds.
The two are neighbors and gardening colleagues; Barlow lives in Gays Mills, Jacobus in nearby Soldiers Grove. Both grow quantities of other vegetables for their families, but add excitement to their growing season by also growing giants, including watermelon and gourds that can reach 10 feet in length.
Why do they do it? Jacobus thinks men are just naturally competitive. Barlow doesn’t disagree with that, but he said he grew giant pumpkins for three years before he learned about weigh-off competitions. Then, he said, it was mostly because he wanted to do something with his daughters.
“It was because I had the little kids,” Barlow said. “A person has only so much they can offer their kids, and growing giant pumpkins gave me something I could do with them. It taught responsibility, and that what you put into something you can get back out. With rewards, there are hardships. If you did have a bad year, you always have hopes to start again.
“It was one of the tools I used in raising my family. It was a useful thing to have while they were growing up. They were all involved.”
Jacobus too has turned this dramatic form of gardening into a learning experience for his children. His sons Gavin, 6, and Cullen, 4, help out in the family’s large garden and go to competitions with their own entries. The boys welcomed a recent visitor by offering a present of oversized seeds from pumpkins they had helped grow.
Barlow has been at it for much longer than Jacobus and his pumpkins routinely place well in weigh-offs. In the annual Anamosa, Iowa, Pumpkinfest, Barlow has ridden in nine of the last 13 celebratory parades. He gets a kick out of throwing candy to kids, he said.
But Jacobus has done well this year too. Two of his watermelons, each weighing 202 pounds, were named all-time Wisconsin state champions this fall. What’s next for such monsters? “We’re going to eat them,” he said.
Barlow says there’s no particular trick to growing giant pumpkins. “Anyone can do it,” he said. “The plants do all the work.” He has estimated that anyone willing to put in at least 10 hours of work per week can grow them.
“Watching for bugs and suckers. Supporting some leaves. Putting on fungicides or insecticides. Pulling weeds, hoeing weeds, picking weeds – weeds are a notorious problem for me because I use horse manure.” It makes the best fertilizer, Barlow said, and he has unlimited quantities from a horse-owning neighbor, but it naturally comes full of weed seeds.
Barlow said he stays away from commercial salt-based fertilizers, instead using manure, molasses-based fertilizers, worm castings, seaweed, hydrolyzed fish and mulched, composted leaves and grass clippings.
“You’re trying to get the nutrients in a natural way to the soil, so that worms can break it down and plants can absorb the nutrients. It’s like refined sugar versus carbohydrates.”
What people always ask him first, Barlow said, is how many pumpkins he leaves on each plant. “If I’m going for the biggest, I am only going to have one on the plant.” He waters only enough to keep the ground moist. One problem then becomes keeping the pumpkin from growing too fast. “Pumpkins will grow fast enough to crack,” he said, “20 to 40 pounds a day. Twenty-five pounds a day is pretty common.”
At the end of the season comes the final harrowing ride to the weigh-off. Each pumpkin is cinched all around close to the ground with loops of strong strapping, then hoisted onto a wood pallet. A skid loader then lifts the loaded pallet onto a trailer.
“Driving down the road with it is a worrisome thing,” Barlow said. Pumpkins have cracked from the bouncing. They’ve even been known to roll off the trailer. “You’re very relieved once you get there.”
Then comes weighing, judging, prizes and parades. Prizes, depending on size of venue, range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
“I’m not doing it for the money but you’re glad when you get the money,” Barlow said.
Growers of giant pumpkins offer seeds and advice to people just getting started. Information can be found online at www.giantpumpkins.com. A website maintained by Wisconsin Giant Pumpkin Growers (www.cwpg.org) offers growing advice and news on Wisconsin weigh-off competitions.