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How to Grow a Giant Pumpkin

 

10 Steps to a Giant Pumpkin

Grow a pumpkin that is as heavy as a small car with these simple hints

      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 Howard Dill. 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 Good Luck.




The How To Grow Guide


Good Seed        Good Soil        Good Luck       


Preparing the soil        Sowing the seeds        Transplanting the seedlings       


Protecting the seedlings        Pollinating the flowers        


Repositioning the pumpkin        Selecting a pumpkin to grow        Pruning       


Fertilizing        Keeping good records       




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 consider when picking a seed are:

  1. Make sure the parents weighed in higher than their estimated weight.
  2. Make sure the fruit was not green, this would make it a squash.
  3. Seeds that have large parents and grandparent will most likely produce large offspring.
  4. Seeds that have been grown before and have produced large offspring are a good pick.
  5. 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 receiving 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 great genetics. 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 instinct.

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 soluble 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 recommended. Atlantic Giant like the soil to be about a Ph of 7 and a test can also who one what nutrients are lacking.

     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.

Good luck. - 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!

1. PREPARE THE SOIL. 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.

2. SOW SEEDS. Start seeds 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.

3. TRANSPLANT SEEDLINGS. 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 their success.

4. PROTECT SEEDLINGS. 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 1x2 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 bags 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. For a detailed explanation of how to deal with heat stress which leads to pollination not occurring click here

     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.

6. REPOSITION SET PUMPKINS. 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.

7. SELECT THE MOST PROMISING 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 exploding pumpkins!

8. PRUNE VINES. 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.

9. FERTILIZE. 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.

10. KEEP GOOD RECORDS. 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 pumpkin's weight.

      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.