“Is it possible to grow really big pumpkins in our area?” I wondered. All of the media attention seems to go to those 1,200+ pounders from New England, Long Island, or Pennsylvania, but I knew there had to be some big pumpkin enthusiasts in our Mid-Atlantic region. After all, Maryland is known for its pumpkin fields as they are a mainstay of our local agricultural area. In 2007, Maryland farmers produced 14.8 million pounds of pumpkins on 2,000 acres valued at over $5 million. They grow almost effortlessly (especially for those of us with a sun-lit compost pile and discarded seeds from last years decomposing pumpkins).
My search for the great pumpkin led me to the message boards on www.bigpumpkins.com and an appeal to the Mid-Atlantic hobby pumpkin growers who gather to exchange their tips and tricks there.
Andy Edger, who lives in St Mary’s County in Bushwood, MD, responded to my plea. He said, “I began trying to grow giant pumpkins three years ago. My first year, was a disaster, I grew one small pumpkin that weighed five pounds and the pumpkin split in half on the vein. The second year, I grew eight pumpkins, the largest was 300 pounds.” That years crop is pictured above. He is pictured with his 2009 biggest below.
Andy says, “I start my soil preparation in the fall, by preparing the soil with compost and testing the soil condition in the spring. Soil samples are analyzed by a lab, after I receive the results; I amend the soil as needed per the results of the soil analysis. In mid-April, I germinate the pumpkin seeds that I plan to grow for the season. Once the plants are large enough (as least 3 leaves), I plant them in the patch. Next begins the need for a whole lot of luck! Every day, I inspect the plants for damage, insects, and growth. I begin a daily water regimen that includes fertilization and pesticide treatment.”
Mark Fowler of Farmville, VA, says to make sure you have an aggressive fungicide spray program to fight disease. “Here in Virginia we fight powdery mildew at a much larger rate than our fellow growers to the north,” comments Mark. “The reason is the huge amount of humidity we are often plagued with. For this reason I only water with soaker hoses, I never overhead water. Wet leaves and humidity breeds mildew. Once you have it, you will not get rid of it. Starting your spray program in mid-July will save you a lot of heartache in August and September when the mildew really gets rolling. Also, be sure to rotate the fungicide you are using. Diseases become immune to fungicide if use the same one every time. I rotate three different brands.”
Ed Robinette of Hayes, VA, co-founded the Virginia Giant Vegetables Growers Association. Ed advises, “When you set your pumpkin (at least 15 feet out and only one pumpkin per plant) make sure your vine grows away from your pumpkin. This is very important, your pumpkin will grow over the vine and snap off the stem.”
Jim Gerhardt is from Berks County, PA, grew up in Howard County, MD. He says the key is to set a good Atlantic Giant seed with a real pedigree. “We know the fathers and grandparents of our seeds back for generations,” explained Jim. “People can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, if they wish to request seeds. Seeds in a generic packet from Home Depot will not cut it.”
“Be prepared to water a lot,” Jim continues. “During a good hot dry spell I could water as much as 75 gallons per plant per day. And limit chemical fertilizers. The salts from these chemicals will build up over time and limit your ability to create a balanced soil.” Jim suggests spraying a good systemic Fungicide like Eagle 20.
William K. Layton of Nelson County, VA, is the record holder for Virginia. “My biggest ever pumpkin was 1138 lbs. in 2007,” says William. “The last two years have been rough with a lot of bad weather. Giant pumpkins do not like a lot of rain or cold.”
Anthony D. Watson of Kensington, MD, who set the Maryland state record in 2008 with a 713.5 pound giant pumpkin says, “We have a great chance of growing big ones in our area. I’m sure we could compete easily with the more Northern growers. We just do not have enough growers trying in this region. I set aside half my yard to vines and I only have a 1/8-acre urban lot. I’d love the competition and am willing to help anybody who needs it.”
W. Bruce Clark of Dayton, VA, is a real inspiration. He told me, “2009 was my first year growing giant pumpkins. I bought a couple books and a video on the subject and the next thing I knew things were happening way to fast. When everything was all said and done my pumpkin weighed 954 pounds, was the second heaviest for 2009, and the largest ever grown in the Shenandoah Valley. Not bad for my first try.”
Finally, Tom Privitera of Poughkeepsie, NY, says, “Don’t try to break the world record, try to grow the biggest you can and have fun, you will learn new tricks every season. Find an experienced grower in your area, or on the net at www.bigpumpkins.com and ask as many questions as you can. Growers will be happy to help you, anyone who spends 4-6 hours a day tending plants doesn’t have the energy to be mean!”
Author: Kathy’s own garden includes only mini-pumpkins; no prize-winning giants — yet. She is editor of Washington Gardener magazine (www.WashingtonGardener.com) and a long-time DC area gardening enthusiast.