Featured This Month: Growing Giant Competitive Pumpkins

Submitted by Ron Milkay, Master Gardener

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Ken Desrosiers has a passion for growing big pumpkins and recently agreed to an interview to talk about his interesting hobby.  His pumpkins are grown on a 2000 sq. foot portion of his homestead in Broad Brook CT.

What is competitive pumpkin growing all about and how did you get interested in it?

In competitive giant pumpkin growing it is all about weight. The heaviest pumpkin wins regardless of physical size, color or shape. Competitive growers commonly choose seeds that tend to grow pumpkins with thick walls. Most pollinations are controlled, so the genetics get better and better each year.

Would you walk me through the process of growing a competitive pumpkin?

Growing giant pumpkins requires a good sized garden and full sun. You can get seeds from other growers on BigPumpkins.com for free. I will talk more about my website a little later. I start my seeds indoors around April 20th. I put them outside in early May in small greenhouses (6’x4’x3’) to protect them from frost. I even put small electric heaters in my greenhouses. When you put the seedling in the soil, put the first true leaf opposite of where you want the main vine to run. Managing the vines is a very important part of growing a giant pumpkin. By early June the plants will outgrow the greenhouses. At this time I put up my wind breaks to protect my young plants from wind.  I bury my main vine and each secondary vine (vines growing off the main vine) at the leaf nodes. This helps to build a bigger root system which can take up more nutrients into the plant and pumpkin. All tertiary vines (vines growing off the secondary vines) are pruned off. I try and keep my secondary vines perpendicular to the main vine. The goal is to pollinate a pumpkin on the main vine as this will yield the biggest pumpkin. All pumpkins on secondary vines are removed. To get the biggest possible pumpkin, grow only one fruit per plant. I try and get my pollinations done between June 20th and July 10th. Once a pumpkin is set you will want to position it at a right angle to the main vine and pull it backwards slightly so the pumpkin is on the outside of the curved vine. This will make some room for the pumpkins “shoulders” to grow. As the pumpkin grows continue to position it until you can no longer lift it. You will have to cut some of the tap roots growing along the main vine so that the vine can lift up as the pumpkin grows. If you don’t do this the pumpkin will snap itself right off the vine during rapid growth. It is common to see growth rates of 25 to 40 pounds per day at peak. I have heard of some growers getting up to 60 pounds in 24 hours. Throughout the growing season you will need to spray your plants once every 7 to 10 days for insects and disease prevention. The most common pests are cucumber beetles, squash vine borers, squash bugs and aphids. Diseases that can end your season include fursarium, yellow vine disease, blossom end rot and mosaic virus.

How and where are competitive pumpkins judged and what prizes are awarded?

The rules for competitive giant pumpkin growing are pretty much standard. The pumpkin must be solid and free from any holes into the cavity. For the safety of the weigh-off personnel all fungicides must be removed from the pumpkin before transporting to the weigh-off. Most weigh-offs will have an inspection process before the weighing begins.

There are giant pumpkin weigh-offs all over the world in which giant pumpkin growers compete for ribbons, plaques and cash prizes. The prize money can vary greatly from one weigh-off to the next. Expect the competition to be a lot tougher at the weigh-offs with the high prize money! To give you an idea, winning the Topsfield Fair will get you $3000 plus a $2500 bonus if your pumpkin is the largest in all of New England. There is an international organization for giant pumpkin growing called the GPC (Great Pumpkin Commonwealth). The GPC has over 80 different weigh-off sites  around the world. Entering your pumpkin at one of these sites will allow you to compete internationally for additional prize money. In New England, our current GPC sites are: the Topsfield Fair in MA, the Durham Fair and the Woodstock Fair in CT, Ridgefield CT, the Frerichs Farm weigh-off in RI, Deerfield NH, Colchester VT and two weigh-offs in Maine.

When was the one ton competitive pumpkin milestone reached?

2011 1st Place Connecticut Giant Pumpkin Weigh-off (1487.5 lbs.)

2011 1st Place Connecticut Giant Pumpkin Weigh-off (1487.5 lbs.)

In October of 2012, Ron Wallace from Greene, RI won the Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts with the first pumpkin weighing over a ton at 2009 pounds. This was the second time Ron Wallace grew a world record pumpkin. He held the record in 2006 and was the first person over 1500 pounds with his 1502. In 2013 Ron’s record was broken by Tim Mathison of Napa, CA with the current world record weighing 2032 pounds. There was another pumpkin weighing over a ton grown in 2013 in Switzerland by Beni Meier but his 2328 had a hole and therefore was not official.

We are mid-way through the 2014 growing season here in North America and the rumor is Ron Wallace and some other Rhode Island growers are doing very well. The world record is likely to be broken again this year!

Tell me about your web site.

I started BigPumpkins.com back in 1999 as I was learning how to develop software for the Internet. Today it is the biggest and most popular website on the Internet for the hobby of giant pumpkin growing. You can view the grower diaries of fair-winning giant pumpkin growers and see how and what they do throughout the growing season. You can ask questions and get answers from experienced growers in your area. You can make friends with other giant growers from all over the world. All of the results from every GPC weigh-off site are aggregated on the website and you can see where your pumpkin sits in the world-wide standings. Maybe you too will have your own giant pumpkin grower’s diary on BigPumpkins.com next year!
Editor's Note:  At the 41st Annual Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off, John Hawkey had a pumpkin that weighed in at 2,058 pounds.

Preserving our Garden's Bounty

Contributed by Kerry Lake, MG
'Tis the Season, that special time to preserve our garden’s bounty for enjoyment long after summer is gone. Preserving is about enhancing your garden’s bounty; bringing together more than one ingredient from your garden; using the peppers and onions and garlic and apples to make spiced apple chutney. This is taking apples to a whole new level, beyond just eating an apple out of your hand.

In a way, preserving our garden’s produce is not just providing for your future self, but also respecting your whole self. The self that tended the garden and is now bringing that produce beyond just today. I feel so alive after finishing a batch of pickles, or plum butter; I just can’t explain the thrill of filling up a larder for winter consumption. We have already been sharing our preserved bounty with neighbors and friends, and so far, we have gotten rave reviews!

There are so many ways to preserve our garden’s produce. Let me count the ways.

The simplest is Cold Storage. Examples would be hanging your onions and garlic, or storing carrots in a bucket of dry sand. Cold storage means a cold (not freezing) and dry space. My childhood home had a ‘root cellar’, a room off the rest of the basement that was certainly not heated, but used to store mostly root vegetables: carrots, potatoes, beets.

Drying. The simplest example would be of herbs; oregano, thyme, and winter savory can all be dried then the leaves can go into small jars or little bags. Don’t forget the lavender; I hope you have been harvesting it and making sachets for your closets and drawers. Here’s a great little DIY .

Freezing. Simple, easy, and great to enjoy in the dead of winter. Some vegetables need to be blanched before freezing (place in boiling water for 2 to 5 minutes, drain and plunge into ice water, drain again, pat dry, and place in freezer bags); fruits (berries) do not need to be blanched.

Water Bath. This is true canning. The vegetable or fruit is cooked. The jars and lids are sterilized. You can do the vegetables plain or create something fantastic. There is nothing like opening a jar of tomatoes in January and the aroma is pure summer! Personally, pickles (especially from zucchini) and relishes are a favorite of mine. Pickling in a salt brine, or vinegar brings a new dimension to the cucumber, zucchini, beet, and turnip.

Let me also mention Quick Pickles. You still need to use the sterilized jars, but not the water bath. Keep all quick pickles in the refrigerator and eat within a few weeks of pickling. We have pickled turnip and beets with one fresh red chili pepper in each jar; this will bring on the heat in the middle of winter!

Preserving in Oil. This is an ancient method used in India and Pakistan. This year my daughter is preserving fresh peppers, hot and sweet, in oil. So far, really delicious. These can be used quickly or can last for a few months. Sterilize the jars and lids.

Preserving with Sugar. Ah yes, jellies and jams. Fruit is heated with sugar (lots) and lemon juice. Additional pectin is not always necessary. Jars and lids should be sterilized. Plums, peaches and apricots, raspberries, and blueberries will all make excellent jams and jellies.

You can also preserve food in Alcohol. Because the alcohol is already fermented, it preserves your food the longest. The longer the maceration in alcohol, the more tender the fruit.

Besides some old family recipes, I would recommend these books for use when preserving your garden’s bounty: The Joy of Cooking for the basics of canning and jamming; Jams, Conserves & Preserving for some new and different choices; Quick Pickles for everything you need to know about pickling without the water bath.

Hoping you enjoy your garden’s bounty as it comes out of the garden (or your favorite farm stand), and as you prepare it for later consumption, you can look forward to serving it to family and friends this winter.

The What, Why, When and How of Mulching

Contributed by Julie Abramson, Master Gardener 
Mulching garden beds can often make the difference between success and failure, especially when gardening on dry sites or with newly planted perennials, shrubs or trees. Some plants that are marginal for your climate zone may also thrive in your garden with winter protection through mulching. Mulching is one of the simplest and most beneficial of gardening practices.

What is mulch?

Mulch is a protective layer of material, often organic in nature, and can include the following materials:

  • Grass clippings
  • Straw
  • Bark chips
  • Newspaper
  • Cardboard
  • Shredded bark
  • Compost
  • Leaf mold or decomposing leaves
  • Cocoa or buckwheat hulls
  • Shredded leaves
  • Pine needles
  • Christmas tree boughs

Such material is laid down on exposed soil in the garden and spread to a depth of 2-4 inches. Mulch can also be inorganic, including stones, stone dust, landscape fabric and plastic sheeting.

Why mulch?

  • enrich and protect the soil from erosion
  • reduce compaction from the impact of heavy rains
  • conserve moisture
  • prevent weed growth
  • keep soil cooler in summer and frozen in winter (see ‘when to mulch’ about the importance of keeping soil frozen in winter)
  • keep fruits and vegetables clean and keep soil-borne disease from splashing onto plants
  • set plants off visually and give garden a finished look
  • improve the condition of the soil by providing organic matter from decomposing mulch
  • improve root growth and the infiltration and water-holding capacity of the soil
  • provide source of plant nutrients and encourage earthworms and other beneficial soil organisms

Inorganic mulches can do some of the same things that organic mulches do, such as keeping weeds down and protecting soil and plants; however, they do not enhance the soil, provide nutrients to plants or improve the look of the garden, with the exception of stone mulches.. Stone mulches can be very effective in rock gardens both visually and as a protection from rot for sedum, cacti and other rock garden plants. Plastic mulches offer some advantages for the vegetable garden as they warm the soil and keep warmth-loving plants such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants happier in our northern climate. Recent research has shown that red plastic mulch improves the productivity of tomatoes. Salt marsh hay and straw work well in the vegetable garden while other types of hay may harbor weed seeds. Shredded leaves are an excellent mulch for perennial beds, as is shredded bark, while bark chips and shredded bark are effective in foundation plantings or around bushes or trees.

When to mulch?

Time of application varies with your goal in mulching. Mulches provide an insulating barrier between the soil and the air and moderate the soil temperature. Therefore, a mulched soil in the winter may not freeze as deeply as one that is not mulched. Yet, mulch also will cause soil to stay frozen when warm spells occur in the winter, thus protecting your plant roots from exposure due to the heaving resulting from freeze and thaw cycles. This is a major cause of plant loss in the garden. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, when you mulch to protect plants from the impact of winter, you are actually trying to keep them consistently cold rather than warming them with the mulch. Therefore, it is essential to wait to mulch plants for the winter until the ground is fully frozen. In our area, that may vary with the weather but often coincides with the post-Christmas disposal of Christmas trees whose boughs serve as an excellent mulch for the perennial garden. In my last garden, I was able to convince the town waste collectors to drop a load of Christmas trees at my door when they were collecting them for recycling. It is important to note that if you apply mulch before the ground has frozen, you may be offering rodents an attractive spot in which to over-winter and possibly munch on the bark of trees or shrubs. Mulching around trees also can protect them from weed whackers and mowers.

However, since mulch insulates, mulched soils warm up more slowly in the spring than soils that are not mulched. Therefore, you should not apply mulch in the vegetable garden until the soil has warmed. In fact, you can use plastic mulch to hasten the warming of the soil for those vegetables that appreciate warmth but not for those such as peas or lettuce that need cooler soils. Wait to add mulch to existing perennial beds until the soil has warmed fully.