In Pursuit of the Great Backyard Pumpkin

September 12, 2007

This article is a guest entry written by Susan Warren, author of a new book about the art of competitive pumpkin growing — Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever.

Today Susan shares the story of her own quest to grow a giant pumpkin in her backyard garden…

Competitive giant pumpkin growers have just one thing on their mind all year: growing the next world record. It takes a lot to do that – growers devote themselves mind, body and soul – and wallet – to their pumpkins 12 months out of the year. When they’re not growing, they’re planning and preparing.

Growing Giant Pumpkins; Almost Easy as Pie

susan warren and pumpkin In Pursuit of the Great Backyard PumpkinThat kind of single-minded focus isn’t for everyone. But the fact is, while competitive growers steal all the limelight with their three-quarter-ton behemoths, giant pumpkins can be grown by pretty much anyone, anywhere.

I’m proof of that. Last year while I worked on my book about competitive pumpkin growers, I was also growing my own “giant” pumpkin in my tiny Dallas backyard. I experienced firsthand the roller-coaster of panic and pride that comes with growing these beasts. And I learned the dirty little secret of giant pumpkins: they’re tougher than you think.

Giant pumpkin plants will tolerate a lot of abuse. You don’t have to have the perfect soil or make it a full-time job. Competitive growers aren’t magicians. Most of their techniques are pretty basic: good dirt, lots of water and organic fertilizer, careful pruning to keep the plant under control, and a one-pumpkin-per-plant rule.

Managing Pumpkin Vines in the Home Garden

With just a fraction of what it takes to grow a world-class pumpkin over 1,000 pounds, you can still produce something weighing several hundred pounds – which is bigger than anything else you’ve ever grown.

From the start, growing a giant pumpkin in my suburban backyard required a series of compromises. I knew I couldn’t approach the kind of growing conditions the competitive growers created. Giant pumpkins, you realize, grow on giant plants – they can sprawl up to 1,000 square feet. But I made do with my little vegetable patch of 200 square feet.

As the vine grew, I let it spread over the grass. That’s heresy in the competitive world. Pumpkin vines root as they grow, and to get a world-class giant you need nutrient-rich soil that the vines can feast on all along their length. But my vine still rooted right through the lawn, and the grass made a soft bed for the growing pumpkin.

Shameful Pumpkin Coddling and Pampering

Not that growing my own pumpkin was care-free. The amount of water necessary to keep them happy is a disgrace to the notion of conservation. I supplemented my soil with aged manure and fresh compost, and brewed up some compost tea for fertilizer.

pampered pumpkin plants In Pursuit of the Great Backyard PumpkinBut I’m ashamed to admit that I abandoned my usual aversion to pesticides and fungicides. Without chemicals to ward off the waves of marauding insects and disease, my pumpkin plant would have been toast.

To cope with the Texas heat, I bought shade cloth to block 20% of the sunlight – not so much it would slow the pumpkin’s growth, but enough to keep it from getting scorched. And my husband, Tony, installed a misting system on a timer to cool down the plant in the peak heat of the day.

Giant pumpkins won’t pollinate successfully in temperatures above 90 degrees. So my husband rigged a special cooler with a compartment for ice and a notch to fit over the pumpkin vine. We pollinated, and then covered the baby pumpkin with the cooler for a day or two. It worked, but I lost count of our trips to Home Depot.

The Rewards and Satisfaction of Growing Giant Pumpkins

So in the end the plant did take over the backyard, and my kids couldn’t play there anymore. And we got a reputation in the neighborhood as the strange people growing the giant pumpkin.

But despite our pathetically inadequate circumstances, we wound up with a 240 pounder! Puny by competitive standards, but certainly bigger than anything I’d ever grown before. My daughter’s fourth-grade class even made a field trip to our backyard pumpkin patch!

giant pumpkins In Pursuit of the Great Backyard PumpkinThe point is that most of us gardeners shouldn’t be intimidated by the monster-sized pumpkins grown in the competitive world. It can be just as satisfying — and a heck of a lot easier — to grow a 300 or 400 pounder.

I do have to warn you: if you try growing a giant you WILL become addicted to the plant, and it will suck up huge amounts of your time. We never expected to be constructing shade tents and misting systems and custom pumpkin coolers when we started.

Despite all that, I’m just crazy enough to want to try again. We moved this summer so growing was out of the question. But now that Backyard Giants is in the bookstores and I have a little more breathing space, I’m eyeing a nice, sunny spot in my new yard that looks like it would be the perfect place to put a pumpkin patch next year.

Susan Warren is Deputy Bureau Chief for The Wall Street Journal in Dallas, Texas, where she writes and edits news and feature stories related to oil and gas, discount retailers and airlines. The Journal also gives her freedom to pursue stories about other things she finds interesting for its famed “middle column” feature on its front page. Backyard Giants grew out of an October 2005 WSJ article about the trials of growing giant pumpkins.

Ms. Warren’s roots remain firmly in Texas, where she was raised one of eight children in the oil town of Houston. Outside the office, she spends as much time as possible in her garden. She takes special pride in finding plants hardy enough to endure the weather, and to thrive under her survival of the fittest growing style. Visit www.BackyardGiants.com to view incredible photos, reviews of the new book, or a look into Susan’s interesting pumpkin diaries.





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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Sherri September 12, 2007 at 1:21 pm

Neat read, thanks! She’s 2 zones cooler than me, so I enjoyed reading about her shade clothe setup on her site that you linked. I’ve had a lot of veggies looking like her wilted pumpkin leaves from July to August (and sometimes before and after, depending on the weather).

Matron September 12, 2007 at 3:50 pm

I tried last year to grow an Atlantic giant. I did everything right… and ended up with a basket ball. Not quite as bad as the one I just pictured on my blog though..

Kenny Point September 12, 2007 at 5:59 pm

Susan, thanks a lot for sharing your experiences growing those giant pumpkins with everyone here. Good luck with the book and things over at the Journal.

Karrin September 12, 2007 at 6:22 pm

My father in law has a real pumpkin addiction. Each year he raises a pumpkin for each of the grandkids. Scores their names in the pumpkin as they grow and hand delivers them in time for Hallowenn. The kids LOVE it! I am going to tell him about the book it sounds right up his alley. Thanks!

Charlotte September 12, 2007 at 9:30 pm

What an interesting story. Funny how we can become so passionate about our “babies” in the garden. I can completely understand the addiction factor. Might try this with my little guys next summer – I’m sure it would thrill a 4 year old to death to grow a 240 lb pumpkin!

Susie Bennett July 22, 2008 at 6:41 pm

My sister sent me the story about your pumpkin. I am thrilled. I didn’t know if anybody other than I had the same desire to grow a giant pumpkin in Texas! Last year I watched a T V program about people growing giant pumpkins and was instantly hooked. This was my first year to try and I now have a 101 lb pumpkin named Henry. I am already planing my next years project.
I can’t wait to get your book! I have so much to learn.
The Palestine Herald Press, my towns paper, wrote an article about Henry and me on July 12th and a picture too. If you were interested, you can go to http://www.palestineherald.com and read it. Good luck with next years pumbkin. Susie

Rick Trotter October 12, 2009 at 8:39 pm

Susan, This year I grew (am growing) a giant pumpkin for the
first time, and It’s been a blast! My “baby” is just over 90 lbs. I’m hopeing she gets over 100, but won’t be dissappointed if she doesn’t. Let me know what you think.

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