Weighing an estimated 1,500 pounds, the giant pumpkin had taken over the backyard, its vines snaking out in all directions. Sitting amid a sea of leaves on Sept. 12, the orange monster was packing on a few final pounds before its debut at the Damariscotta Pumpkinfest in a few weeks.
“Watson’s his name,” said the pumpkin’s grower, Sarah Whitty.
At her home in Veazie, Whitty had been growing the pumpkin since April. Her goal was to exceed 1,000 pounds, and based on measurements, she’s surpassed that goal by far. Her pumpkin may be one of the largest at this year’s celebration.
But she’s not so sure. Maine’s small community of giant pumpkin growers is friendly but secretive. They encourage and help each other, but at the end of the day, they want their pumpkins to win. The current state record is a 1,756-pound pumpkin grown by Charleston resident Elroy Morgan , the custodian at William S. Cohen Middle School in Bangor, in 2017.
Whitty, a 30-year-old physician’s assistant who enjoys hiking and canoeing, entered the world of competitive pumpkin growing by chance. When she moved to her house in Veazie in 2012, the people who’d lived there prior had tossed their jack-o’-lanterns in a compost pile in the backyard, and the next spring, Whitty was amazed to watch a pumpkin plant sprout and thrive.
“I didn’t do anything and there were just pumpkins everywhere,” Whitty said. “I was like ‘Oh wow. This is super easy. Why don’t I just grow a giant pumpkin and let it do its thing?’”
The next year, she planted a giant pumpkin seed and was successful in growing a 200-pound pumpkin, which was exciting for her but puny in comparison to award-winning giants. So she did some research, gave the plant more attention, and the next year, she grew a 600-pounder. Then came a spell of bad luck.
For the past three years, Whitty’s pumpkins have met disaster in the form of disease, fungus and a hail storm. But she keeps trying. The hobby is fun and addicting, she said, but it involves a lot of work.
“To grow a big pumpkin, you need three things,” Whitty said. “You need good seed, good soil and good luck.”
This year, to grow Watson, Whitty purchased one special $60 seed. The seed came from the famous 1985, an Atlantic Giant pumpkin that was grown by Gary Miller in Napa, California, and maxed out at 1,985 pounds.
“It wasn’t even guaranteed to germinate,” Whitty said of the expensive seed.
Luckily, it did. Whitty planted the seed indoors April 1 and moved it to a hoop house in her backyard a few weeks later. To keep it warm, she used a heater and placed soil heating cables in the soil. That month, her heating bill was $350, so her mother suggested she call the pumpkin “Watson,” after the wattage it took to start.
When the weather warmed, she removed the hoop house and tamed the pumpkin’s many vines into neat rows snaking out on all sides. She then selected a blossom, pollinated it and watched it grow into a pumpkin.
But that’s not all. As the pumpkin grew, she tended the plant, snipping away any extra pumpkins, which would only take up the plant’s energy. She also pruned the leaves and vines on a regular basis, lest they take over the whole neighborhood.
“A big phrase in the pumpkin world is, you’re trying to grow a pumpkin, not a salad,” she said. “So you want to grow a big plant, but at some point, you want to stop the plant from focusing on growing the plant. You want it to put the energy toward the pumpkin.”
As it stands, her one pumpkin plant covers about 1,000 square feet, its broad leaves soaking up the sun, and its many roots sucking water and nutrients from the soil. It drinks about 150 gallons a day.
To make the plant even more efficient, she’s done something called “burying the roots,” a time-consuming process that involves placing pots filled with peat moss over parts of the vines where roots can grow so they don’t shrivel up and dry in the sun. She also sprinkles a fungus called mycorrhizae on the vines, which helps roots grow, and protects the plant from pathogens and disease.
In addition, she uses Azos, a bacteria that takes nitrogen from the air and converts it to a form that can be used by the plant. And she uses several other microbial products to help prevent the plant from getting diseased.
Every two weeks, she tests the soil for nutrients and sends a tissue sample — a leaf — to a laboratory in Idaho to be tested for nutrients as well.
“It tells you what’s in the soil and what the plants taking up, and then it gives me recommendations on how to adjust the feeding,” she said.
Then there are pests to deal with. Whitty grows blue hubbard squash as a trap crop, to entice cucumber beetles away from the pumpkin. And right now, she’s working around the clock to protect the pumpkin from mice and rats, which will burrow under and into the pumpkin. To do this, she’s surrounded Watson with moth balls (which deter rodents) and traps.
“It’s a war right now,” she said. “I’ve caught nine so far.”
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that some weeks, Whitty spends up to 40 hours tending to Watson. All with the goal that he grows big and lasts until the annual Damariscotta Pumpkinfest and Regatta, a multi-week event that culminates on Columbus Day weekend.
“The number one question I always get is, how do I move it?” Whitty said.
For this particular pumpkin, she plans to rent a tripod hoist — the kind used to lift engines — and raise Watson up using heavy duty straps and perhaps a few prayers. She’ll then need to place it on a trailer because it’s simply too big for a truck bed.
“You know you have a good pumpkin when it doesn’t fit in the [bed of the] truck,” Whitty said.
Watson will then be transported to Pumpkinfest, where it will be weighed. Up until then, its weight is simply estimated by using measurements and a formula that all giant pumpkin growers use.
At Pumpkinfest, the largest pumpkins of the year will be placed on display and celebrated. The growers who are successful in growing pumpkins that weigh more than 1,000 pounds will receive a coveted jacket, which Whitty is eager to earn. Then a number of the pumpkins will be carved into boats for the regatta, which this year will be at noon Oct. 8.
The celebration also includes a parade, pumpkin dessert contest, pumpkin carving and painting demonstrations, a pumpkin hunt for children, pumpkin pie eating contests, a pumpkin derby, a giant pumpkin catapult demonstration and more.
Whitty isn’t sure where Watson will end up. It’s all in good fun.
“This is my favorite time of year,” Whitty said. “It’s funny. At the end of every pumpkin season, I’m like, ‘I need to take next year off. This is just too much work and I don’t have a life.’ And then by the time winter goes by and April comes along, I’m like, ‘I can’t wait to grow a big pumpkin again!’”
To learn more about Damariscotta Pumpkinfest and Regatta, visit mainepumpkinfest.com, and if you’re interested in growing your own giant pumpkin next year, check out the Maine Pumpkin Growers Association at mainepumpkins.com.
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