Big, Bigger, Biggest!

THE REAL DIRT

November 08, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

In tough economic times, it pays to garden. I know a man who planted a $2 pumpkin seed in his back yard. Five months later he harvested a huge pumpkin, for which he earned $14,500.

Small deposit, big return. That's the kind of profit you can make nowadays for growing giant fruits and vegetables. Monster crops. The bigger the better. Forget about flavor, Americans are awed by size.

Last month, a Lancaster, Pa., man harvested a 3-pound apple. It was, by all accounts, a marvelous apple, the kind that could single-handedly fill a pie. But the owner couldn't eat the apple until it was weighed for entry into the Guinness Book of World Records, which promotes large crops.

Meanwhile, a Puyallup, Wash., man who raised a world-record, 827-pound pumpkin promptly sold it to a restaurant that chose to exhibit it, not cook it.

I'm as fascinated by these jumbo fruits as the next gardener. Large veggies also pique my interest. Why else would I have kept a mammoth 8-pound zucchini as a doorstop, two months after harvest, if not for bragging rights? (Never mind that giant zucchini are tough and inedible and ought never to reach that size. Huge zukes should be a source of embarrassment, not pride.)

There is no mystery to man's obsession with growing large produce, says Joel Holland, who reared the mighty pumpkin.

"It's the same with anything that's at the top of its class," he says. "A big pumpkin is just so extraordinary to the average person."

Holland carved his niche in the pumpkin hall of fame with his handsome orange oval which, at 827 pounds, shattered the old mark of 816.8 pounds set two years ago by two farming brothers in New Jersey.

The Great Pumpkin earned Holland $7,000 in prize money from the World Pumpkin Confederation, plus $7,500 from the California restaurant that bought it for display. The new owners placed the pumpkin in a tent in a nearby corn patch for public viewing. Talk about a field of dreams. Throughout October, thousands of pumpkin pilgrims drove hundreds of miles to pay homage to the fruit.

If you grow it, they will come.

The pumpkin had its own security force, although the chances of theft were remote. "To steal this pumpkin, you'd need a forklift, which is not the fastest vehicle around," a visitor observed.

On Halloween, the pumpkin was carved into the world's biggest jack-o'-lantern. You can put a candle inside of most pumpkins. You could put a man with a candle in this one.

The seeds were returned to Joel Holland, whose goal is to raise the first 1,000-pound pumpkin. He predicts that milestone will fall within five years.

How does one grow big pumpkins? All you need is the right seed (a variety called Atlantic Giant), mountains of chicken manure and enough water to douse a four-alarm fire, according to Holland, who is a firefighter.

By midsummer, that star pumpkin was gaining weight faster than Delta Burke, at the rate of 22 1/2 pounds a day. To protect the pumpkin from scorching heat and hail, Holland erected an 8-foot wooden shed around it in the garden. The walls were insulated with 1 inch of Styrofoam to combat an early frost.

The Great Pumpkin was still gaining weight when Holland cut it last month for the weigh-off. He covered it with wet towels and packed it in 300 pounds of ice, in the back of his Ford pickup, for the ride to California. Fearing the fruit might get thirsty, Holland left 3 feet of stem on the pumpkin, like an umbilical cord, and placed the vine in a jug of water in the truck bed.

Darned if the thing didn't gain 2 more pounds during the trip.

The drive itself had its scary moments: a hay wagon up ahead blew a tire, which came flying through the air in large rubber chunks toward Holland's vehicle. But he stayed calm.

"If I'd had to slam on the brakes, everything would have rolled up front," he says.

And the pumpkin would have made a pie out of him.

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