Linus from “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (1966) might have more success seeing the “Great Pumpkin” if he sat in the half-acre pumpkin patch of Darrel Berry, aged 61 of Linden, Michigan.
There are only about four pumpkins, but they are gigantic, some award-winning and definitely impressive enough to call them great.
“Kids stand there with their mouths open and just stare. I try to carry a Polaroid camera. I get the parents to lift up the kids to take a picture with the pumpkin and I give it to them. It gives them something to take home and remember,” stated Berry about one of his reasons for growing giant pumpkins.
Making children happy is definitely fun, but winning “weigh offs” is the other reason Darrel Berry raises these giant round globes. The Great Pumpkin Commonwealth (GPC) is an international group that has certified locations all over the world for weighing pumpkins to decide who has grown the heaviest pumpkin (color only matters to determine if it is a squash, but there are surface requirements, like no cracks, holes or soft spots). “I don’t grow them for beauty, I grow them for weight,” states Berry. Harnica Pumpkin Farm in Dundee, Michigan is where Berry takes his pumpkins and other vegetables for the official weigh off.
These “weigh offs” have proven successful. According to Berry, “My personal best was 853 pounds in 2003; it was also a Monroe County record for two years.” In 2000 he won for one weighing 639 pounds. “Best in Show” was his award in 2005 for color and shape of a 760 pound specimen. According to Berry, “Now you need a pumpkin over 1,000 pounds to win anything.” He has won awards for other vegetables lately, but no pumpkins.
“If I had my druthers, I would have been a farmer, but GM had nice pay and insurance, it was too hard to leave that security after that,” said Berry. Always having a garden and experimenting with exotic varieties finally lead Berry to giant pumpkins when his friend Marvin Mitchell showed him his pumpkin patch in 1999. His first seeds were obtained from Mitchell along with growing advice. They are still close friends and help each other tend their farms and special vegetables.
Giant Pumpkin seeds are named by the pounds of the pumpkin the seeds were taken from. To keep track of seeds that grow the largest of the giants, Berry pollinates by hand. “If the bees are left to pollinate the flowers, I have to list it for example as, 922 open, since I don’t know what pollinated it,” Berry explains. He pollinates by picking a male blossom (no swelling or pumpkin growing below the flower) and rubs the male stamen on the female stigma.
So, how big is a giant pumpkin these days? The World Pumpkin Federation, founded by Ray Waterman in 1983 and kicked off with a 465 pound pumpkin grown by Peter and Paul Waterman, has been the push behind competitive growing. For many years, they pressed for a 1,000 pound pumpkin. In 1996 Paula and Nathan Zehr’s pumpkin weighed in at 1,061 pounds and won $53,000 (highest prize money ever awarded). The next level everyone was going for 1,500 pounds was beat in 2006 weighing in at 1,502 pounds and grown by Ron Wallace of Greene, Rhode Island.
So, what does Berry do with these heavy, odd-shaped giants? One is always donated to MJ Koblinski of Fenton for her special carving for the past several years. She has been carving pumpkins for the pleasure of children (and parents and grandparents) for about fifteen years. Traditionally, she carves a full Garfield character face. She started doing this for her two daughters to cheer them up because the family was going through a divorce. The tradition has remained. You can’t help but notice her display with a 300+ pound carved Garfield anchoring over 100 carved Jack O’ Lanterns. He donates or sells his other pumpkins, usually for causes that include children.
Growing these funny looking members of the squash family is only for passionate pumpkin people. Berry calls it, “Good, clean honest work.” Most people would say a lot of hard work. At peak growing time, the plants consume 50 gallons of water a day (he pumps it from Byram Lake into a reservoir and then to the plants by separate hoses twice a day). They can grow twenty to thirty pounds (or 8 – 10 inches) in one day. This year according to Berry, “The pumpkins are running about two weeks behind, because of the cool weather and there isn’t anything I can do about it.”
A typical giant pumpkin requires seeds to be started early in a greenhouse to extend the growing season, protected from freezing, shielded from the sun, measured daily, watered twice daily, fertilized every fourteen days, hand-pollinated, hand pruned…and hope that there won’t be any pests, diseases, holes, serious soft spots or cracks…whew!
Darrel Berry’s giant pumpkin growing tips…for competition or bragging rights
Soil – Darrel Berry recommends soil testing every fall by a University Extension Service. Nutrients should be added based on the recommendation of the soil test. He claims a sandy loam soil is best for drainage and nutrient retention.
Plants – Start seeds indoors around May 10th (Zone 5) for a full growing season. Plant in the garden about May 24, later if the weather is cool. Use covers at night (to protect from cold or freezing air) and remove during daylight hours to prevent scorching.
Water – A very important requirement. At peak growth pumpkins require 50 gallons of water daily; water pumpkins in the morning and early evening during peak growth and hot weather. Berry advises using gallon jugs to start, to help understand water needs.
Water Dam - Make a raised circle of soil to keep water near the main root, especially during hot, dry weather.
Fertilizer – Use a generic 20-20-20 soluble fertilizer (add to water) every two weeks…follow fertilizer directions.
Quick Lime – Every spring Berry adds quick release lime to the soil.
Light – Full sun all day.
Covering – Cover vines during early spring at night to avoid cold temperatures. When the pumpkins reach about 200 pounds provide a tarp tent-like structure cover to keep the sun from drying the skin and cracking it.
Pruning – Remove secondary shoots early in growth cycle. Late July all but one pumpkin should be removed from each vine.
Pollination – Approximately July 4th Berry uses the male flower to fertilize the female flower. Cheesecloth covers the pumpkin to keep bees from pollinating.
Diseases – The biggest problem is Watermelon Mosaic Virus. Its symptoms are bumpy, discolored, distorted leaves. It slows the growth of pumpkins which is serious to competitors and doesn’t show up right away.
Recommended reading – “How to Grow World Class Giant Pumpkins” by Don Langevin
P.E.T.P.U. – (pronounced pet poo) – People for the Ethical Treatment of Pumpkins http://www.geocities.com/petpu4/ an organization dedicated to the rights of pumpkins!
"Rewritten with permission from the Michigan Gardener Magazine".