For many of us, fall means a bounty of pumpkins for pies and
jack-o’-lanterns, along with a gathering in of the rest of the autumn harvest. But for thousands
of backyard gardeners, fall is the time of reckoning and, for a lucky few, glory! These are
the growers of the heavyweights. For them, pumpkin growing is a competitive sport. As recently
as 16 years ago, the heaviest (official) pumpkin weighed a mere 403 pounds. Since then the world
record has been broken nine times. The guru of monster pumpkin growing is
His behemoths have won more world records than any other grower’s. His Atlantic Giant is the
variety of choice for anyone who wants to grow a big pumpkin. Other than
Howard Dill, who held the world record from 1979 to 1982,
no one has ever won the world championship more than once. And almost all the world-record
pumpkins since 1982 have been grown in small backyard gardens.
To really appreciate the feat of growing these
800, 900, or 1,000-pound behemoths, it’s necessary to see one up close. Consider the
measurements of the second-largest pumpkin grown in the world in 1994. Its girth was 176 inches
(that’s more than 14-1/2 feet around!). When carved, these beauties hold 60 watt light bulbs
as well as a member of the family. One can also bake some 900 pumpkin pies from a
single fruit. At the Topsfield Fair in Topsfield, Massachusetts, it took the strength of 12
adults to move a 914 pound pumpkin to the scale. I can’t pass a compact car anymore without
thinking that 10 or 12 men could roll it onto a tarpaulin and cart it away, too.
Now that you’re all interested in these monsters, it is time to talk about
techniques required to grow “the big ones.” Believe it or not, you’ll probably need to start
in the fall, preparing the patch. The only problem is that if you ask 10 competitive pumpkin
growers how to do this you’re likely to get 10 different answers. It seems everyone has his or
her own way of coaxing the most weight out of these giants. Since the internet has giant pumpkin
growers from around the world, advice will differ from person to person because of different
temperatures, soils, amounts and intensities of sun light, and
bug problems. But there is a thread of consistency
that runs throughout all the instructions, and adhering to three basic tenets will get you well
on the way to a world record. Above all else, you need good seed, good soil and
The How To Grow Guide
Good Seed. –
When selecting a seed the first consideration is to make sure it is an Atlantic Giant. If you
are a beginner then this is a must and what you must have to compete. For the more advanced
growers family trees are very important. Good parents are essential and things to
when picking a seed are:
- Make sure the parents weighed in higher than their estimated weight.
- Make sure the fruit was not green, this would make it a squash.
- Seeds that have large parents and grandparent will most likely produce large offspring.
- Seeds that have been grown before and have produced large offspring are a good pick.
- Make sure the seeds you receive have a name such as 405 Sanchez 99. This means that the
pumpkin weighed 405 lbs, a grower with the last name Sanchez grew it and it was grown in
1999. If a seed doesn’t come with this info you will have no idea what its genetics are.
Most growers will give you their seeds for free and give you the genetics.
Companies like P
& P seed company will charge you for seeds unlabeled genetics that could be 10 years old.
That is most likely the reason that people who buy from them are disappointed upon
there overpriced, non labeled seeds, which I have found to have poor germination rates.
A good link to try is
The Backyard Gardener Click on
mailing list and you can email growers who will send you seeds for free with
They will also give you advice on how to do almost anything with your pumpkins.
These are just some basic rules for growing giant pumpkins and
will be a good foundation for any beginner or experienced grower. But as one moves on and
becomes more daring, he might want to try using unproven seeds from the previous year on a gut
Good Soil. –
The key to growing a giant pumpkin is definitely in the soil preparation.
For the beginning grower, buying compost and peat moss along with a good water
fertilizer should do the trick. More experienced growers do soil tests and refer to the mailing
list at The Backyard Gardener
for advice on how to amend their soil. If just beginning, try buying bags of compost, till them
into the soil a month or two
before one is ready to plant. If you are starting late, tilling them in on the same day you
plant is ok. Just make sure it is compost and not manure.
As for the amount, try laying the bags of compost on the ground
until one can’t see the ground, then cut the bags open and till (removing the bags of course).
Most experienced growers even use more than that, but for the beginner who is just feeling things out this
should do the trick. Also, tilling should be done 3 to 4 feet down for best results. The roots
from the Atlantic Giant can easily go that deep and a looser soil allows for roots to develop
a larger system. Many top growers also test their soil to see what nutrients are missing and to
find out what the Ph is. For anyone who wants to compete with top growers this is
Atlantic Giant like the soil to be about a Ph of 7 and a test can also who one what nutrients
The type of soil is also very important. Some have very sandy
soil and some have more of a clay type. Sandy soil is definitely preferred. If one has a hard
clay soil, it would be a good idea to buy some top soil to loosen the soil up, as well as using
compost and peat moss.
If you can grow a good vegetable garden,
you have the skill to grow a world-record pumpkin. I’ve seen newcomers grow 500-pound pumpkins
their first year with good seed, some rudimentary help from an experienced grower and a lot of
luck. With the right preparation and strategy now and in the spring, next year you might just be
a contender for the world championship!
Start with a pH test in fall and adjust
your pH to between 6.5 and 6.8 by adding sulfur to lower the pH or lime to raise it. Apply three
to five yards of composted manure per 30-foot-diameter circle where you expect to plant next
spring. Plant a cover crop of winter rye in fall to be turned under in early spring,
broadcasting one to two pounds per 1,000-square-foot area.
indoors in six-inch peat pots about four weeks before your last spring frost date. Plant the
seed with the pointed end of the seed facing down. Keep the soil temperature at 85 to 90 degrees
F. Most seeds will emerge within five to seven days.
Transplant seedlings into the garden once the first true leaves appear or when roots begin to grow through the peat pot (usually only a few days after germination). Handle with care because pumpkins
are easily set back during transplanting. It is important to get your seedling into the ground
early. Roots want to get spread out and keeping the seedlings in a small container will hamper
Place a “mini-greenhouse” over the seedlings for six weeks to shield plants from wind and frost.
These mini-greenhouses can be as simple as two storm windows nailed together to form a teepee or
as elaborate as a four- by four-foot wooden structure made from 1×2 lumber nailed together with
6-mil clear plastic stapled to cover the frame. Once seedlings outgrow the mini-greenhouse, use
a temporary fence to screen wind. Some use “conservation” fence, which is bought with wood end
stakes attached and is commonly used at new construction sites. A 100-foot roll cut into three
pieces is enough for three 11-foot-diameter areas.
5. POLLINATE FLOWERS.
At about 60 days after germination, the first female flowers will appear. They’re easy
to distinguish because they have a small pumpkin at their base. If you want to ensure you
lineage, you’ll need to hand-pollinate the flowers. It is a good idea to place plastic or paper
over the male and female flowers that will be opening in the next morning so that no early
morning bee’s can pollinate
your flowers with any foreign pollen. Next, in the early morning, locate a freshly
opened male flower. Pick it and remove the outer flower petals, exposing the stamen and fresh
pollen. Locate a newly opened female flower and gently swab the stigma (internal parts) of the
female flower with the pollen-laden stamen. Cover the flower back up so that no late bees can
put foreign pollen in them. One major problem with pollination is the heat.
Getting a pumpkin set as early as possible,
preferably before July 10, is key (this now varies due to location. Some growers in Florida
start as early as February planting and pollinate in April. Others in hot climates that are not
as severe may just want to start a month earlier and pollinate on June 10th. But for growers
wanting to compete in festivals, (growers in the east and the growers in Canada must
pollinate in July so they can have a maximum amount of growing time before the early October
contests.) So for eastern growers who can start as late as July 10th, the earlier you set a
pumpkin, the longer it has to grow until harvest. Since these monsters can gain 25 pounds a day,
losing 10 days in the early part
of the season could put you well down the list at your local pumpkin weigh-off.
Once a pumpkin has set, its position on the vine becomes
extremely important. Most often the stem grows at a very acute angle to the vine. However, for
optimal long-term growth, the best position is to have the stem perpendicular to the vine. If
yours is not at a right angle to the vine naturally, coax it gradually, over about a week’s time,
until it is in that position. Be careful, because at this early stage pumpkins may still abort
or you may injure the fragile stem. More importantly, if one adjusts their pumpkin too much it
may just snap off. To minimize the risk of a stem snapping, only adjust it during the warmest
part of the day. A warmer stem is a more pliable stem 🙂 One also wants to curve the vine away
from the pumpkin. The vine should be in a “U” shape above the pumpkin.
If one plant has three strong vines, you could have as many as seven or eight pumpkins set and growing.
Now you must choose the best pumpkin and remove most of the rest. Measure each
pumpkin’s circumference at the widest point weekly or daily with a cloth measuring tape. Choose
the one that’s growing fastest. Often, two or three pumpkins may be growing at the same rate, or
at nearly the same rate. IF this occurs use these guidelines: Pumpkins on the main vine of
one’s plant have the most promise. If one has a choice between a pumpkin on a secondary vine or
a main vine, I would choice the main vine pumpkin almost every time. This is not to say there
are not exceptions, but if one is playing the odds, go for a main vine pumpkin. Another
consideration is the pumpkins stem. Long straight stems are more desirable than short and/or
curved ones. Also, relating to stems, picking a pumpkin that has the vine trained away from it.
This will become important when the pumpkin grows in size. This will prevent the vine from
rubbing on the shoulders of your pumpkin and will prevent the dreaded stem stress.
Also, when selecting a pumpkin, one may want to consider the place the pumpkin is on the vine.
Another hypothesis is that a pumpkin 12 to 16 feet out on the main vine may
have the most promise. Also, keep an eye out for the optimum shape. Young pumpkins
that are round and especially tall grow the largest.
Another important point is to make it a
gradual process when culling the pumpkins one doesn’t think are the most
promising. This means
that instead of just cutting the stem all the way through in one day and taking the pumpkin
inside, one might consider slowly cutting the stem off for a period of a week or so. Some
growers hypothesize that when one culls a pumpkin all at once, the plant puts all the energy it
once had for two or more pumpkins into one. This could result in splits and
Begin pruning vines early in the season to discourage random growth and an out-of-control patch. Let
side shoots off the main vines get no longer than eight feet to ten feet before cutting off tips. Train side
shoots so they are perpendicular to the main vine to accommodate access to the vines and
pumpkins. Bury the ends of cut vines to reduce water loss.
During the growing season, most
fertility needs of pumpkins can be met by applying water-soluble plant foods
once or twice a week over the entire plant area. Give seedlings a fertilizer
that stresses phosphorus, such as 15-30-15. Shift to a more balanced formula,
such as 20-20-20,
By late July, use a formula that stresses
potassium. Some competitive growers
will err on the side of over fertilization. But too much fertilizer can hurt more than help.
If the pumpkins start growing too fast, they will literally tear themselves from the vine and
explode. A very fine grower in New England who has definitely been over quoted on the pumpkin
mailing list as well as on websites said, “Slow and easy wins the race.” Remember this
whenever you feel the urge to over fertilize.
Measure your pumpkins at least weekly. Early on, one may want
to measure their pumpkins daily. But as growth slows, frequency of measuring should too. Gains
in circumference can average four to six inches in a 24 hour period.
Measure the circumference of your pumpkins first parallel to the ground around the entire pumpkin
, from blossom end to stem. Next, measure over the top in both directions: from ground to ground
along the axis from stem to blossom end, then perpendicular to the stem-blossom-end axis.
Add these three measurements together, then multiply by 1.9 to give an estimate of the
Now even though this seems like a lot of information, for the competitive grower, these are just
the basics. And now that there are growers all over the United States and the world, different
planting techniques and strategies to deal with bugs, disease, and weather are used and have to
be learned through experience.