How to Grow a Giant Pumpkin Like a Mainer
The president of the Damariscotta Pumpkinfest offers his advice on cultivating a gourd you can paddle in.
Giant pumpkin growers are a furtive bunch, or so it seems when you’re trying to learn their secrets. First Edwin Pierpont, of Jefferson, who beat his own state record at last year’s Damariscotta Pumpkinfest for his massive 2,121.5 pound fruit, humbly declined to speak on the subject: “Get in touch with Buzz Pinkham. He and Bill Clark taught me everything I know.” Buzz was called, but he kept his cards close, sending us instead to BigPumpkins.com, a helpful resource for sure, but not quite the lowdown we were looking for. Next came Clark, who agreed to spill the beans. “First off, you need to be completely and totally insane to do this,” he says. “When I used to compete, I put in 40 to 60 hours a week between feeding, patching, prepping, pruning, and vine training. It’s a full-time job.” Feeling just crazy enough to try? Clark’s advice is to start now, this fall: “People will amend their soil for next year with composted manure, gypsum, lots of calcium, things like that,” he says. “Get that in there and till it, and put in a cover crop, which is what we call a green manure, to replenish the soil with nutrients.” Wintertime is for research. Clark first started with seeds from North Carolina Giants, which yielded five 200-pound pumpkins; he now sources what he calls “some decent seed” for a strain of Atlantic Giants at, you guessed it, the aforementioned website. In March, get the snow off your patch and start warming up the soil. “Most of the big growers will build fairly good-size hoop houses,” says Clark. “They’ll be running heaters, running ground cables, to try and get that soil warmed up to around 70 degrees.” Next comes vine training. “You don’t want just like a big mess,” says Clark. “If you don’t stake them down and train them, a good wind will blow the whole vine over, and then you’ve lost your roots.” Springtime is for the birds and the bees, but don’t rely on them, since you don’t want any question about the genetics of your plant. “Cover the males the night before you cover the female,” explains Clark, who sounds like he’s describing colonial bundling practices, “and then cut the males off, strip them down, and paint the pollen onto the female to pollinate it.” How much water does a giant pumpkin need? “Somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,250 gallons for a thousand square feet,” says Clark, who recommends installing an automatic irrigation system. You may, at this point, be wondering about the point of all this. Prize money? Not much. Glory? Sure. But as Clark likes to say, referring to the Pumpkinfest’s legendary regatta, which features numerous 400- to 700-pound pumpkins motored—or paddled—by volunteer captains, “You can’t make a boat outta a jack-o’-lantern.”
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