CORVALLIS, Ore. – One small seed is all it takes to produce the gigantic pumpkins entered in fierce competitions around the world, including the record set in 2016 with a 2,624.6-pounder that weighed almost as much as a Volkswagen bug.
Maybe you won’t achieve quite that size but plant ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’ and you’ll grow a whopping pumpkin, said Jim Myers, a vegetable breeder for Oregon State University.
“I’ve had these types growing in fields and without doing anything special to them I’ve gotten 400-pounders,” he said. “They certainly need plenty of water and lots of space to grow. People who grow them competitively have their own secret formulas that they don’t talk about and use different strategies. It’s a very small group that does it competitively and they’re very fanatical about it.”
Modern monster pumpkin genetics go back to grower Howard Dill, a Nova Scotia farmer who spent 30 years selectively breeding giant pumpkins. He came up with ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’ – and every world champion since has come from offspring of those seeds.
Dill reinvigorated giant-pumpkin competitions in 1978 by breaking a 75-year-old record set in 1903 by William Warnock, whose 403-pound oddity was then displayed at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Dill’s champion 438.5-pound pumpkin sounds wimpy next to those grown today, but it was outlandish enough to gain a spot in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” Dill held the world record four years straight and landed in the Guinness World Records book in 1981 with a 493.5-pounder.
To grow a monster pumpkin, it takes a monster amount of land, water and fertilizer. A single pumpkin can cover 1,200 square feet and the big boys need up to 500 gallons a week. If you’d like to try, Myers offered the following advice:
- Use ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’ seeds. Competitive growers seek out offspring of the champions, but be aware seeds are expensive – a single seed of a champion has been auctioned for as much as $1,600. For beginners, find seed online from local mail-order nurseries
- Germinate monster pumpkin seeds at air temperatures of 65 to 75 degrees and soil temperatures of 70 to 90 degrees.
- Grow pumpkins indoors from seed and move the starts to your garden about five to seven weeks later. Plant in late May after the last frost.
- Full sun is important – avoid sites with full or partial shade.
- Avoid soil compaction in the field. Some growers use stepping stones or boards to minimize impact during the season.
- Place plastic around the base of the pumpkin about two weeks before planting to bring the soil temperature to about 60 degrees. A high tunnel or hoop house can also be used, especially during the early part of the season to create a warmer environment for the plant.
- Provide your pumpkin with plenty of room to spread – a single plant may use as much as 1,200 square feet, or roughly a 40-foot diameter circle.
- Remove enough flowers and fruit – pumpkins are actually fruits – to force the plant to put all its energy into producing one behemoth fruit instead of lots of smaller fruits.
- Hand-pollinate pumpkins to increase the number of seeds that develop and the likelihood for bigger fruits. Pull off the petals of male flowers, which look like straight stalks, and dab these on the female flowers, which have little round ball-shaped ovaries at their base.
- Give pumpkins 130 days or more to mature. Because of this, they are best suited to western Oregon.
- Check soil daily. The ground needs to be evenly moist – but not soggy – at all times. Keep water off foliage to discourage disease.
- Apply aged manure in fall or in spring put down compost, up to 5 cubic yards per plant. Then use a fertilizer periodically through the season. Apply lime in fall to bring soil to a more neutral pH if a test determines it is on the acid side. Fertilize every two weeks or so with decomposed manure, compost or fertilizer.
- Maintain a weed-free area around plants.
- Stake down or bury leaf nodes along the vine. These will root and help prevent wind from rolling the vines.
- You can place the growing pumpkin on a large piece of cardboard or piece of wood to repel soil-dwelling insects.
- As the fruit gains size, shade it to prevent scalding and reduce overheating. The skin will also remain more flexible and the fruit will be less likely to split.
- Harvest your pumpkin at the end of the season just before the first frost. It won’t color to the bright orange of a jack-o’-lantern type, but it will appear pale yellow to orange-ish red when it is ready.
- To qualify as a pumpkin and not a squash, the surface area must be shaded red, pink or yellow, rather than blue, gray or green.
- At harvest time, be careful that the pumpkin does not develop cracks, which will disqualify you in competitions.
After you’ve entered your pumpkin in weigh-off competitions, you might be able to sell it to businesses. Casinos or restaurants will sometimes purchase a champion and contract with a professional pumpkin carver to create a short-lived sculpture, Myers said. Or you can roast the seeds. Be forewarned, though, the flesh is not very palatable.
“It’s something that’s interesting to do. There’s not a lot of practicality. There might be a little prize money and it’s good for notoriety,” Myers said.
— Kym Pokorny
- How to Grow Giant Pumpkins: A Short Guide for Enormous Results
- How to grow a giant pumpkin
- We spoke to the Temple couple who wrote ‘Milk and Vine,’ the parody book that went viral on Twitter
- Could explain how you guys even came up with the idea of this book?
- How did this make its way to social media?
- What were your families’ reactions to the book?
- So is it really true that you guys wrote this book a few weeks ago?
- Are you guys going to see some profit from this?
- How do you guys feel about all of this?
- How have Temple students responded to this?
- Which poem is your favorite from Milk and Vine?
- What’s next for you guys?
- Milk Fed Pumpkins: Learn How To Grow A Giant Pumpkin With Milk
- Growing Pumpkins with Milk
- How to Grow a Giant Milk Fed Pumpkin
- Should I Use Milk to Grow a Giant Pumpkin?
- How to Grow a (Record-Setting?) Giant Pumpkin
- Find a Plus-Size Pumpkin Seed
- Prepare Your Soil
- Plant Your Seeds
- Coax a Giant
How to Grow Giant Pumpkins: A Short Guide for Enormous Results
Written by The Seed Collection Pty Ltd Date Posted: 6 June 2018
People grow their own food for many reasons. Taste, sustainability, and simple enjoyment are all excellent reasons for getting your hands dirty in the vegetable bed. However, for some growers, size really matters and the race is on to grow the largest possible example of their favourite variety.
In the esoteric world of competitive growing, pumpkins are one of the most popular and spectacular crops. Generations of knowledge, lore, and superstition go into growing the true giants among gourds, and while you might not aim to compete at quite this level, you can certainly take the lessons learned and use them to grow some impressively large specimens of your own.
Choosing Your Seeds
There are hundreds of types of pumpkin, squash, and gourd seeds, and the botanical boundaries between the different varieties aren’t always clear. Some are bred for tasty sweetness, some for resilience to pests and disease, and others for decorative looks.
But of course, if you’re looking for size, it’s essential to choose a variety that has the potential for greatness. One of the most common varieties among competitive growers is Atlantic Giant, which reached a then world record weight of 782kg in 2009. Today’s even larger behemoths are usually descended from this groundbreaker.
But for more casual gourd gardeners, the Big Max variety makes an excellent alternative. In ideal conditions, it can provide fruits of up to 220kg, but its produce is more commonly in the still-impressive 10kg to 50kg range. This particular variety has the added advantage of tastier, sweeter flesh than the outright size fiends, making it a useful crop in the kitchen as well as an impressive one in the garden.
Planting Your Pumpkins
Pumpkins should be sown in late spring when all chances of frost have passed. They generally take around 120 days from sowing to bearing ripe fruit. However, if your priority is size, then every extra day’s growing counts. Sowing indoors can give you a couple of weeks extra if your season is short.
Whether you’re starting your pumpkins indoors or sowing them directly, their final growing location should provide full sun and some protection from wind. The soil should be slightly acidic for ideal results, but this isn’t a huge factor in your potential success.
What really matters is that your pumpkin vines should have easy access to plenty of nutrition and water to funnel into their fruits. However, they also require good drainage. To provide these conditions, plant each vine in a mound of soil about a metre in diameter and 30cm high, enriched with plenty of well-rotted manure or garden compost.
Spacing is an issue for pumpkins, and it’s even more important if you’re aiming for outsize fruits. The vines will sprawl and ramble across your bed with enthusiasm, and larger varieties can produce trailers reaching five meters or more in length.
Conventional growing usually sees individual plants spaced between one and two metres apart, with the vines kept under control by pruning or being pegged into a neat circle.
However, for larger fruits, you should allow the vines free rein and plant them even further apart. The more leaves each plant produces, the more nourishment the pumpkins will receive, and so allow plenty of room for them to flourish.
Setting and Choosing Fruit
Once established, the pumpkin plants will produce the first set of male flowers, recognisable by their long stems. For now, you can ignore these.
What you’re really looking for is the female flowers, which feature a tiny pumpkin at their base. If these flowers first appear on weak and underdeveloped vines, remove them quickly before they can set fruit.
But if your plants are sturdy and vigorous, for each one choose two or three of the healthiest-looking flowers on the thickest stems, and remove the rest. To get a head start, pollinate the remainders using pollen from the male flowers, or you can wait and allow the local bee population to help out with this task.
Once the resulting fruit has grown to roughly the size of a tennis ball, remove all but the largest. This survivor is now the focus of all the growing efforts for that one vine.
Pumpkins are eager growers and require little delicate care. They can be vulnerable to slugs and snails in the early weeks, but once established require only plenty of water and regular feeding.
Use a nitrogen-rich fertiliser before flowering, a phosphorous-rich formula when flowers appear, and a potassium-rich one once the fruits have started to develop.
The only major risk to health is from mould and rot. Always water at the base of the plant rather than over the leaves, and once the fruits have become heavy enough to touch the ground, lay them on a flat stone or tile to keep them away from damp soil.
Since you’re aiming for size, leave your pumpkins as long as possible before harvesting. However, it’s essential to cut them before the first frost which will kill the plants surprisingly quickly. When harvesting, leave a few centimetres of stem attached to the pumpkin to prevent any fungus or infection entering the fruit itself. Harvested like this, they will keep for months in cool, dark conditions.
If this is your first time growing pumpkins, it’s very unlikely you’ll scale the heights of the competitively grown gourds. However, with a little care and attention, you can easily produce impressive fruits that will look amazing in your garden and provide plenty of fun along the way.
How to grow a giant pumpkin
If you’ve ever wondered how people win pumpkin-growing competitions, get ready for some seriously strange gardening.
Words: Nadene Hall
These tips and tricks come from amateur experts in the USA, the champions of giant pumpkin growing.
You will need (preferably):
• Pumpkin seed “Atlantic Giant” (NZ record 789.5kg, average 180-230kg), available from garden centres
• Seed pots (to start your seedlings off) in a warm spot (ie the kitchen window)
• Soil temperature 18°C or above
• A deep, loamy, well-drained soil, with well-rotted manure and compost dug in, in a sunny position, protected from wind
• Frost protection (cloche, cold frame) if needed
• Fertiliser (preferably liquid fertiliser)
• Water (and lots of it)
Start your seedlings off in a warm spot, especially if you get spring frosts. Use a good quality seedling mix and make sure you feed them well.
You can’t let the young plant get frosted, but getting it into your prepared bed is also important. You can build up a mound (about 10cm high) and plant it out in September (or earlier if you’re confident of soil temperature, over 18°C ), but it will probably need some sort of cover for frost-protection.
In the USA, to get the world record-size pumpkins using “Atlantic Giant”, competitors there use heating coils in the mound and create a special cloche, to make sure the soil stays above 18°C and the plant is protected.
Keep your seedling well watered but not water-logged. The experts recommend starting off feeding with a fertiliser than is high in phosphorous (for root growth), then gradually shift to a more balanced fertiliser with higher nitrogen, then – just prior to fruit set – use a higher potassium formulation. The plant will grow for around 60 days.
As the vine grows, cover it with soil; this will encourage the vine to grow out further – giant pumpkin growers have found the biggest pumpkins tend to grow about 3m from the main tap root. The best pumpkin plants have large number of leaves (some say the optimum is 800 leaves) to pump energy through the vine and into your chosen pumpkin.
When flowers start appearing, you want to find the perfect female flower. Males are a long stem, then a flower. Females are a stem, then the small pumpkin shape, then the flower. The perfect female will have a stem that is at 90° to the vine (meaning maximum feed can flow as it gets bigger and the vine has to move to accommodate its size). To be absolutely sure of pollination, use a brush inside the male flower, then “paint” the female. Once you’re sure pollination is complete, remove all but the 4-5 best-looking female flowers. Measure them each day and make your choice based on growth rates.
Once you have picked your winners (it’s recommended you have a couple of plants so you can hedge your bets) remove the other pumpkins, and very carefully move your chosen one so there is some slack in the vine (make a U shape in it) – this is so as the pumpkin grows, it’s not going to stretch the vine and risk damaging, or worse, breaking, the connection between vine and pumpkin.
If you experience a dry summer then you need to water your pumpkin every day. Continue feeding a liquid fertiliser, with an emphasis on slowly increasing the potassium levels as it grows. Don’t water or fertilise overhead, or you can cause downey mildew.
When your pumpkin gets to about basketball size, you may start to get stem stress, as the vine will be stretching over the shoulders of the pumpkin. You may need to cut off side tap roots so the main feeding vine can rise off the ground as the pumpkin grows; you may even need to move the pumpkin to keep it perpendicular to the vine. This is an incredibly delicate process that may take a week and is very dangerous as the connection can easily break. Be careful and very, very slow in every move you make – there will be no warning of a break, just one final snap.
One final tip – keep the pumpkin (not the plant) under shade; this helps prevent splits forming, to give you a great-looking pumpkin, as well as a big one!
There is an increasing number of giant pumpkin competitions on around NZ, held in April.
Discuss This Article
Every now and then, a new author will emerge with a book that captivates an audience with its plot and characters. Oddly enough, a book about vines, combined with Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey, has captured the attention of everyone — probably because it’s so damn great.
Temple University students Emily Beck and Adam Gasiewski originally wrote their book best-selling book Milk and Vine on Amazon’s self-publishing website for their friends to enjoy just a few weeks before it became a best-selling book. (It currently sits at #2 on Amazon’s Best-Sellers List.)
While their success is mind-blowing, both students are just humble freshmen here at Temple who wanted to make a funny book for their friends to share. Now they’re being praised for their genius book.
This is my legacy pic.twitter.com/pO5rhhfuWv
— Adam Gasiewski (@a_DAMN7) November 3, 2017
The Tab Temple spoke with the unexpectedly famous freshmen couple about their recent success and what we can expect from them next.
The success of their book has Adam and Emily more shocked than anyone else.
Could explain how you guys even came up with the idea of this book?
Adam: We were walking around Barnes and Noble one day when we saw Milk and Honey. We heard about it before but I never really read it. We flipped through a good portion of the book and we liked the idea. I’ve always had a desire to write a book and I recently learned about Amazon’s Kindle publishing platform, where anyone can self-publish themselves and upload it online for free. You can make it a Kindle or paperback and have it distributed worldwide. I saw this as a really cool opportunity and I told Emily that we should write a book together.
I told Emily it could be a parody or something but we just didn’t know what idea exactly until later when Emily thought about using Vines as poetry. It’s funny but people open up this book and expect deep poetry, but it’s just ridiculous vine poems.
Just finished @a_DAMN7 and @emiilybeck ‘s latest book and I am SHOOK pic.twitter.com/I22yfphMtb
— Vaitie Ceech (@CaitieVeech) November 9, 2017
Emily: Adam posted it on Twitter so our friends could retweet it because this book was originally made for our friends. It just went viral overnight and I just remember sleeping and waking up with thousand of retweets and favorites. I was like “Ohhhh OKAY!”
Adam: Twitter was the best platform to post about it, in hindsight since it’s the perfect demographic. People who are 15 to 30 years old know what Vines are and the famous Milk and Honey. Vines are on Twitter a lot, so everyone understood the concept of the book and it really took off.
It’s official. Milk and Vine has now surpassed Milk and Honey on the charts and is in the top ten best selling books in the world. 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼 pic.twitter.com/wrQCMe2zVH
— Adam Gasiewski (@a_DAMN7) November 7, 2017
What were your families’ reactions to the book?
Emily: We originally didn’t tell our families! We told our friends right away but our families did not know. We didn’t know how to tell them that we made a book and it went viral?!
Adam: Not only that, but the concept of the book too. It’s just really edgy and vulgar so I didn’t really want to tell my family. I waited until we hit the #1 best-seller and I texted my parents to check out the number one best-seller on Amazon.
They were like, “What the hell…”
Emily: My parents actually called me and said “What is this book that you wrote?”
My friend’s mom told my mom that my friend had bought the book. So when my mom asked about the book I said “Oh it’s just a normal book.”
how am i going to tell my parents milk and vine went viral
— Emily Beck (@emiilybeck) November 8, 2017
So is it really true that you guys wrote this book a few weeks ago?
Adam: Yeah, around October 18th. We went to Center City’s Barnes and Noble and we saw the book Milk and Honey.
Milk and Vine was published on October 22nd on Amazon. We wrote it in the few days in between those dates. The tweet I tweeted of the book went viral so I posted the link underneath it and the rest is history.
Are you guys going to see some profit from this?
Adam: Some. We priced the book really low and there’s no other book priced this low. The margins aren’t great but what we are doing now is talking to agents and publishers to get the book into retailers. Barnes and Noble already contacted us about placing our book into their stores. We’re planning to go worldwide.
How do you guys feel about all of this?
Emily: I’m feeling kind of shocked, and I can’t believe I’m Twitter famous.
Adam: It’s just a lot to happen so quickly. I feel like these things normally take a longer time. If you look where our book is it’s next to Obama and people who have millions of dollars with giant publishers behind them. While we just breezed right passed them in a 24 hour period. Every single day since has been unbelievable.
How have Temple students responded to this?
Emily: Everyone on my floor usually just stare at me. They knock on my door and they hand me the book with a pen. I’m just like, “All right!”
My friends at home are updating us all the time, they’re the ones who are supporting us and telling us how successful the book is becoming. We check our Twitter all the time but we can’t possibly favorite everything we see about the book.
Adam: Nothing’s changed for me, really. I just keep doing me. My friends and family are also very supportive.
s/o to my floor mate and her bf being famous https://t.co/bq6quZn5XP
— delaney (@dkmills91) November 7, 2017
@emiilybeck @a_DAMN7 SO PROUD OMG I CANT WAIT TO READ IT HAHA #milkandvine pic.twitter.com/iJIGCMvYvs
— Megan Nescio (@megannescio) November 9, 2017
when your roommate goes viral ‼️‼️ https://t.co/4hA5af9s25
— Anne (@annefrascella16) November 9, 2017
Which poem is your favorite from Milk and Vine?
Emily: My favorite is the Girl you’re thicker than a bowl of oatmeal.
Adam: The Trey one is definitely my favorite.
Milk and Vine (2017) pic.twitter.com/4ANgAHXGaq
— raddison (@MaddisonGonella) November 8, 2017
What’s next for you guys?
Adam: Well, now we just have to choose a publisher and just recover from all of this. We are looking into some other ideas for books and publishing deals. We do want to write more, but we just need to plan it out.
You can buy their best-selling book here and we’ll be waiting for their next project in the future.
Milk Fed Pumpkins: Learn How To Grow A Giant Pumpkin With Milk
When I was a kid, I looked forward to going to the state fair at the end of the summer. I loved the food, the rides, all the animals, but the thing I most clamored about seeing was the blue ribbon winning giant pumpkin. They were amazing (and still are). The winning grower of these leviathans often stated that to attain such great size, they fed the pumpkin milk. Is this true? Does using milk to grow pumpkins work? If so, how do you grow giant milk fed pumpkins?
Growing Pumpkins with Milk
If you do a search regarding feeding pumpkins with milk, you will find quite a bit of information with about a 50/50 split on the veracity of using milk to grow pumpkins. Milk does have vitamins and minerals, with calcium being the most touted. Most kids are given milk to drink with the idea that it will make them grow up strong and healthy. Of course, there is some dissention over whether cow’s milk is really very good for kids, but I digress.
Given that pumpkins need calcium and other micronutrients, it seems to be a no brainer that growing pumpkins with milk will definitely boost their size. In this case, there are some problems with the idea of feeding pumpkins with milk.
First of all, although I don’t have any kids in the house, I do have a rabid milk drinker. Therefore, I am very much aware of how much milk costs. Liquid fertilizers such as fish emulsion, seaweed fertilizer, compost or manure tea, or even Miracle-Grow will all add calcium and micronutrients into the pumpkin vine and at a significantly lower cost.
Secondly, when feeding milk to a pumpkin, one of the most common methods is by making a slit in the vine and feeding a wicking material from a container of milk into this slit. The problem here is that you have just injured the vine and, like any injury, it is now open to disease and pests.
Lastly, have you ever smelled spoiled milk? Try putting a container of milk out in the late summer in the hot sun. I’m betting it won’t take long to spoil. Ugh.
How to Grow a Giant Milk Fed Pumpkin
Since I have read both positive and negative reviews on feeding giant pumpkins milk, I suppose if you have the means and an inquisitive mind, it might be fun to try growing a pumpkin goliath by milk feeding. So, here’s how to grow a giant milk fed pumpkin.
First, select the variety of pumpkin you want to grow. It makes sense to plant a giant variety like “Atlantic Giant” or “Big Max.” If you are growing pumpkins from seed, choose a spot in full sun that has been amended with compost or composted manure. Make a hill that is 18 inches across and 4 inches tall. Sow four seeds to a depth of one inch in the hill. Keep the soil moist. When the seedlings are around 4 inches tall, thin out to the most vigorous plant.
When the fruit is the size of a grapefruit, remove all branches but the one which the healthiest specimen is growing. Also, remove any other blossoms or fruit from your remaining vine. Now you are ready to milk feed the pumpkin.
It doesn’t seem to matter what type of milk you use, whole or 2% should work equally. Sometimes, people don’t use milk at all but a mixture of water and sugar and still refer to milk feeding their pumpkin. Some people add sugar to the milk. Use a lidded container, like a milk jug or Mason jar. Select a wicking material, either actual wick or a cotton fabric that will absorb the milk and filter it into the pumpkin stem. Punch a hole the width of the wicking material into the lid of the container. Fill the container with milk and feed the wick through the hole.
Using a sharp knife, cut a shallow slit on the underside of the chosen pumpkin vine. Very carefully and gently, ease the wick that is in the container of milk into the slit. Wrap the slit with gauze to hold the wick in place. That’s it! You are now feeding the pumpkin with milk. Refill the container with milk as needed and also give the pumpkin one inch of regular irrigation per week.
An even easier method is to just “water” the pumpkin each day with a cup of milk.
The best of luck to those of you milk feeding pumpkins. For the doubters amongst us, there’s always liquid chelated calcium, which I hear is a guaranteed blue ribbon winner!
Should I Use Milk to Grow a Giant Pumpkin?
Random question I know, but according to one of my listeners this is the way to go! Take a look/listen and tell me what you think!
Before we get started, let me address my Giant Pumpkin Contest competitor Fred, because I know he’s looking at the pics of my pumpkins and laughing because they’re a little yellow and a little wilted! –
Dear Fred-I KNOW! It took us too long to get them in the ground and they were root bound in the red solo cup s we had them in and we were watering all of the nitrogen out of their soil. The wiltyness is due to transplanting and they look GREAT today. I hope yours don’t die of shame when they see how much bigger mine are. Oh and I also got some more secret weapons from the folks at Live Earth…
Now moving on… one of my listeners called and asked if I was going to feed my GIANT pumpkins sour milk?!
He says, his buddy used this method and his pumpkins were HUGE! Take a listen:
So I Googled it and according to eHow you’re supposed to:
- Make a small slit in the stem 3 inches from the pumpkin.
- Insert one end of a wick into the slit and the other into a pan of milk.
- 2% is recommended
- You can also inject it directly into the stem with a siring
- You can also pour a cup of milk around the roots everyday
- And spray the leaves with milk
These tips are supposed to increase size, plant production, leaf strength & more however eHow also says that,
While milk can make a beneficial impact on the growth process, it does not have any properties that directly increase pumpkin size. However, milk does have the potential to keep your pumpkins healthy and free of disease that results in smaller growth.
These tips are supposed to increase size, plant production, leaf strength & more however eHow also says that,
So what do you guys think?
How to Grow a (Record-Setting?) Giant Pumpkin
The bar gets higher almost every year – the 1,000-pound mark was first breached around the turn of the millennium; the current world-record pumpkin weighed in at 2,323.7 pounds, grown by a German gardener in 2014.
World champion growers have turned what was once an innocuous 4-H hobby into a professional pursuit, with big cash prizes instead of just blue ribbons, the seeds of world champion specimens fetching upwards of $1,000 each. But that shouldn’t deter you from seeing how big of a pumpkin you can grow just for the fun of it, not to mention the bragging rights you’ll accrue.
If you want a giant pumpkin next fall, don’t wait until spring to get ready, you have to start preparing the ground now. It’s a race to provide the longest possible growing season and funnel as much nutrients and water as possible into a single pumpkin, all while making sure there are no mishaps with pests, disease, or errant kids, pets, or livestock trampling the plant.
Find a Plus-Size Pumpkin Seed
The first step in growing giant pumpkins is to obtain the right seed. One-thousand-plus pound pumpkins generally result from high-pedigree hybrid seeds, which circulate among the most serious growers and cost from $10 to $100 or more per seed. But virtually all giant pumpkins are descended from a variety called Dill’s Atlantic Giant, which is widely available from seed companies and sells for typical seed prices. Three hundred- to 500-pound specimens are routinely grown with this variety, but you still have to work at it – growing a giant pumpkin requires in-depth horticultural knowledge, a daily dose of TLC for the plant, and, well, a lot of luck.
Prepare Your Soil
- In the fall, till up a 10-foot diameter bed in a sunny, well-drained spot with rich garden soil. Eight or more hours of sun is a must, and if the area is protected from wind by shrubbery or structures, that’s even better.
- Spread 6 inches of composted cow manure over the bed and till it in. This will be the base of fertility for the giant pumpkin next year.
- Sculpt the bed into a low broad mound, like a pitcher’s mound, and cover it for the winter with a straw mulch or a cover crop.
- In late winter/early spring, start the pumpkin seeds in peat pots about a month before the average date of last frost in your area.
Plant Your Seeds
- Once your most vigorous seedling has several leaves, transplant it into the bed that was prepared in the fall. (If you have the space, you can plant more than one seedling if you prepared more than one mound; each seedling should be at least 10 feet apart.)
- Cover the seedling with a cold frame to protect it from late frosts and to warm up the ground, which encourages the pumpkin plant to start growing. This is essentially a mini-greenhouse, but it doesn’t have to be fancy – four stakes with clear 6-mil plastic sheeting stapled over top is sufficient. The cold frame should cover at least a 4-foot diameter area around the young plant.
- Check soil moisture daily. The ground needs to be evenly moist – but not soggy – at all times. Wetting the leaves encourages fungal problems, so always water at ground level (a drip system is ideal for this).
- Fertilize with light doses of nutrients weekly. In the first third of the growing season, concentrate on high nitrogen sources, such as fish emulsion; in the middle third, increase the phosphorus content with products high in bone meal; in the third phase, use products high in potassium, such as greensand. Provide trace minerals with kelp meal throughout the season. For an in-depth discussion of fertilizing techniques for giant pumpkins (including the use of conventional fertilizers – those listed above are organic) .
- Maintain a weed-free zone around the pumpkin plant throughout the growing season.
- Monitor for pests and disease on a daily basis and apply insecticides and fungicides as soon as they appear.
Coax a Giant
- If the growing area is exposed to wind, install a low fence around the pumpkin plant to prevent leaf damage and desiccation. You need the leaves to remain large and supple to provide maximum photosynthetic energy.
- Pick off all flower buds until the pumpkin vine is about 10 feet long. This allows the plants to grow more and larger leaves, which will then support rapid growth of a single pumpkin.
- After the vine’s 10 feet long, allow several flowers to develop into pumpkins, but remove all but the largest fruit after several weeks of growth.
- Spread a bed of sand under the chosen pumpkin to keep it out of contact with the moist earth below. This is essential for preventing rot.
- Gently adjust the chosen pumpkin so the stem is at a perpendicular orientation to the vine. The stems usually start out with an acute angle to the vine, but they are prone to breaking in this arrangement once they become brittle later in the season.
- Erect a canopy of shade cloth over the chosen pumpkin. In full sun, the skin of the fruit hardens earlier, restricting its ultimate size.
- Remove the rootlets that form along the vine for several feet on either side of the pumpkin as it develops. The vine needs to lift freely from the ground as the pumpkin grows, which is prevented by the small roots that form naturally on all pumpkin plants.
- Spread a couple inches of soil over roots that form along other parts of the vines to encourage a larger root system. Water and fertilize the soil under all the vines, not just the main root system, to encourage maximum uptake.
- Prune the lateral vines that develop off the main vine once they reach about 8 feet in length. Though, in general, you want as many leaves as possible to feed energy to the growing pumpkin, the plant begins to divert more energy to vine growth (rather than fruit growth) if the vines are allowed to grow to an excessive length. Many pumpkin growers recommend training the vines into a Christmas tree format, where the longest lateral vines are closest to the planting location, becoming shorter as they move toward the growing tip.
If you can keep up the TLC regime until the first frost of fall (when the leaves will turn brown and die), you should end up with a massive pumpkin. At this point, clip the pumpkin from its stem and find a few friends to help you roll it onto a scale. Most importantly, don’t let all that food go to waste – the giant varieties are suitable for soups, pies, muffins, and any other recipe calling for pumpkin.
These days, nearly every prizewinning pumpkin can trace its roots back to Howard Dill’s Atlantic Giant. Dill spent 30 careful years cultivating his beasts from the Mammoth pumpkin varieties, which are rooted in the squash species Cucurbita maxima.
In 1981, Dill scored a world record with a 493.5-pound beast, trampling the previous record of 460 pounds. He patented the seeds, and an international cohort of growers continued to selectively breed them for bigger pumpkins.
Just under 35 years later, the weight record for the pumpkins has more than quadrupled.
“Basically it’s like horse racing. We’re breeding big pumpkins into big pumpkins every year to create bigger pumpkins,” says Ron Wallace, another heavy hitter who holds multiple growing titles. Last week, Wallace broke the North American weight record with his 2,230-pound behemoth.
Ron Wallace poses with his record-setting 2,230 pound monster. He now holds the record for heaviest pumpkin in North America. (Courtesy of Ron Wallace)
So why can these monsters grow so large? Atlantic Giant pumpkins can pack on close to 50 pounds a day during peak growing season, says plant physiologist Jessica Savage at the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University. Though a pumpkin is roughly 90 percent water, there is still a great deal of sugar flowing into the plant’s bulk.
Oddly enough, the giant plants aren’t any better at producing sugar than their regular-sized cousins, explains Savage. They’re just better at moving it around.
To take you back to high school biology, plants have two types of tissue that work to get food and water flowing through them: xylem and phloem. The xylem transports water into the plants, and the phloem is responsible for sugar movement. While all pumpkins easily move large amounts of water, Savage found that giant pumpkins have supersized phloem.
Growers have also harnessed the power of mycorrhizal fungi, which happily colonize the plant’s roots and assist water and nutrients flowing into the plant in exchange for carbohydrates, explains Wallace, who originally introduced the fungi to extreme gardeners. With increasing demand for his special fungi-containing elixirs, Wallace started selling the mixes this past February, and business is booming.
So is there a biological factor that will eventually limit their size?
Not really. These monsters are so good at moving sugars, that given the proper conditions, there isn’t anything glaring that limits their growth, says Savage. “It seems like everything in the plant just increased with the fruit size.”
Another grower, Matt DeBacco, suggests that the limit may be in the cells. Plants get large in two stages. First they divide and multiply their cells, then the cells begin expanding. Each individual cell can expand up to a thousand times its original size, so if the pumpkin has more cells to start with, it can expand much faster in the late season, when growth often becomes sluggish, DeBacco explains.
DeBacco, dubbed “mad scientist Matt” by his local community, is currently tinkering with a brew of hormones and amino acids to prolong the initial period of cell growth. Already his method has produced gourds estimated to weigh over 2,000 pounds, and he thinks there may still be room for some tinkering.
“I think that is the last thing that we try before we actually sequence them and change the G’s, the A’s, the T’s and the C’s,” says DeBacco, referring to the chemical base pairs that make up DNA.
In the end, the limit may come down to physics. Giant pumpkins already sag under their own weight, developing heart-wrenching cracks if they grow too quickly or unevenly. But the sagging may actually be one of the keys to continued growth, according to researched published in the International Journal of Non-Linear Mechanics.
Lead author David Hu and his team used vices to test how much force some ill-fated pumpkins could withstand. They discovered that round pumpkins could put up with a lot. Based on these tests, they estimated that a perfectly uniform pumpkin could grow up to a whopping 20,000 pounds. As the pumpkins flatten, things get more complicated, but flattening does seem to help the gourds hold up their massive bulk without cracking.
So although we might not ever have pumpkins big enough to serve as chariots, we already have some large enough for boat rides, and maybe they’ll keep expanding horizontally. The extreme gardeners will just have to go on growing their massive gourds to find out.
Two people help guide a monster squash onto a scale during the 2013 European championship in Ludwigsburg, Germany, (© Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa/Corbis) Spectators gather around the giant pumpkins on display at one of the largest indoor agricultural shows in the world in Toronto, Canada. (© Zou Zheng/Xinhua Press/Corbis) Pumpkin grower Oliver Langheim poses with his portly pumpkin. A tiny Baby-Boo pumpkin sits on top, looking even tinier compared to the Atlantic Giant. (© Patrick Pleul/dpa/Corbis) If you are currently asking what one does with such a giant pumpkin, here’s one option: hollow it out into a boat. This image is from the 2014 pumpkin regatta in Ludwigsburg, Germany. (© SEBASTIAN KAHNERT/epa/Corbis) The pumpkins require a special rigging of straps to ensure their safety during movement from the fields to the scale, as pictured here at this year’s pumpkin growing championship in Boerssum, Germany. (© Peter Steffen/dpa/Corbis) Swiss gardener Beni Meier, poses next to his prized gourd. This pumpkin currently holds the world record at 2323.7 pounds. (© Thomas Kienzle/dpa/Corbis) Through the years of selective breeding, many of the Atlantic Giants have lost their brilliant orange glow. But it still hangs on in some strains, like the one pictured here with hobby gardener Silvia Manteuffel. (© PATRICK PLEUL/epa/Corbis)
I know you can’t believe everything you hear online, but I’ve found a couple of people that say it can be done if you follow the procedure just right. I can’t claim to have tried this, but their claim was success. Personally I like to try things for myself before declaring a myth.
“Yes but it’s a little more complicated than just feeding the pumpkin plant milk What you need to do is have a healthy pumpkin vine and trim away everything except for one fruit and the vine it’s attached to. Let the pumpkin recover for a few days. The take a glass jar with a lid and some cotton candle wicking. Punch a hole in the lid and pull some of the wick through the top of the jar. In the jar mix up some powdered milk at half strength. Fill the jar, screw the lid on. Now the tricky part. Make a slice in the pumpkin vine right where it comes out of the ground. Make the slice about an inch long and about 2/3 the way through the stem. Take the end of the wick in the jar and carefully put it in the slice you made in the stem. Be careful not to pull apart or damage the stem. After you have the wick inside the stem tape the opening in the stalk closed. Then tip the jar upside down and let the milk solution run into the stem. Keep watering the plant as usual and never let the milk run dry. Your pumpkin will grow 3 or 4 times the normal size. It will be lighter in color than a pumpkin grown the regular way.”
“I first got interested in this idea when I was pretty young and was reading the ‘Little House’ books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The actual event I got stuck on was in ‘Farmer Boy’, where Almanzo grows a milk-fed pumpkin for the county fair and wins first prize. It took me ten years to figure out how it was done, even with my Dad and Grandpa’s help.
The idea is to directly, continuously feed a pumpkin vine which makes the pumpkin double, even quadruple the normal size for the variety. My biggest was a 60 pound pumpkin from a variety that was supposed to make 10 lb. fruit! It also shows the kids a bit of science, since osmosis is the method.
You start off with a normal, healthy pumpkin vine, that is mature enough to have one fruit forming. Prune the growing tips to make the plant focus its energy into the one fruit. Let it recover from your pruning for a couple of days.
You will need a small, sharp knife, cotton (unwaxed) candle wicking, or some other natural fiber cording that is soft. A mason jar with a small hole punched in the top. And some kind of wound dressing: pine gum and duct tape are my favourite, but commercial wax pruning paste and a strip of cotton, old panty hose, etc. will do fine.
In the mason jar, we usually make up skim milk powder for the feed, but half-strength organic fertilizer works, even compost tea or a blend of all three have worked for us. The mason jar must never be allowed to go empty, and the wick must always stay wet with the feed.
Select a point on the pumpkin vine right where the stem comes out of the ground. Next best location is right before the fruit.
Put the wicking into the jar and pull out a bit once it is wet, through the whole in the lid.
Carefully slice a diagonal cut 1/3 the way through the vine stem. It is better to make a too shallow of a cut than too deep: cut the vine all the way through, and you’ll have to wait until the vine puts out another pumpkin!
Wheedle the end of the cord into the slice so that the exposed plant tissue is in contact with the wet cord. Don’t spread the slice open – that will crush the stem cells.
Once the cord it tucked in, close the wound with dressing of your choice- mine is pine tree gum and duct tape, but sealing wax and a clean band aid were once my tools.
A successful graft has the plant tissue closing the wound with the wicking still inside.
My kids slice open drinking straws and wrap around the cord to reduce evaporation, and the two older kids have the responsibility of keeping the jar filled. Shading the jar also reduces evaporation.
Continue to treat the pumpkin as you usually do for water and pest defence. Milk-fed pumpkins grow much bigger, of course, but also tend to have a lighter colour in the rind and in the flesh.
I haven’t done a milk-fed pumpkin for two years myself; we moved, then I broke my heel last year. I am commited to doing it again this year, and will take photos of the technique. Right now, the vines are too young to attempt it (zone 5 Central Ontario) Besides, I was careless this spring and didn’t label all my seed starts, so I’ll have to wait until fruit sets. I have no idea what a milk-fed watermelon would do!”