A Rotund Record-breaker

THE REAL DIRT

November 07, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

The man who grew the world's largest pumpkin says the hardest part is neither raising nor harvesting the hefty fruit.

The real problem is bidding adieu to a rotund friend. How do you hug a pumpkin that weighs nearly 900 pounds?

"I couldn't get my arms around it," says Donald Black, of Winthrop, N.Y. "I guess you can't get too attached to these things."

The pumpkin weighed 884 pounds and measured 52 inches across when plucked from Black's back yard last month. Removing the gargantuan gourd from the garden wasn't easy: It took nine men and a tractor to lift the pumpkin from its patch.

Did Black carve it into a giant jack-o'-lantern, or make a thousand pumpkin pies? Neither. Instead, he hoisted the thing into his pickup truck and hauled it 800 miles into Canada, to an international pumpkin contest, to verify its enormous weight.

When the world record is at stake, the bathroom scale won't do.

Officials at the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth Weigh-off in Windsor, Nova Scotia, confirmed Black's belief: His entry smashed the previous world record by 48 pounds.

Black had indeed sired the Pantagruel of pumpkins, for which he earned $4,000 in prize money and a trip to Northern California to see his pumpkin on display. A restaurant there bought the big'un, though Black retains custody of the seeds.

And what magical seeds they are. You've heard of Jack and the Beanstalk? Meet Don and the Pumpkin Vine. From Independence Day to Labor Day, that vine grew more than one foot a day until it measured 50 feet in all directions.

When the vine threatened the house, Black quickly trimmed it.

"Had to," he says. "I couldn't walk around the darn thing anymore. That plant must have had 1,500 leaves on it."

The biggest pumpkin on the vine grew at warp speed. During August alone, the pumpkin gained 660 pounds -- an average of 22 pounds a day.

Black monitored its growth in disbelief. "I thought nothing in the world grew that fast," he says. In fact, the fruit -- a variety called Dill's Atlantic Giant -- was growing too fast. Worried that the globe might crack or split, Black tried to slow its growth by leaving smaller pumpkins on the vine to siphon off some of its strength.

The gourd just kept growing, slurping up nutrients from garden soil enriched by nearly 200 bushels of cow manure. By Labor Day, the pumpkin weighed nearly 800 pounds, and Black was psyched.

His previous best was a 625-pound pumpkin, which he raised in 1989.

Black spent most of September coddling the giant pumpkin, protecting it from predators and frost. He tethered his dogs beside the garden to discourage animal attacks. On chilly nights, he covered the patch with huge canvas tarpaulins to guard against the cold.

At times, the 1,000-square-foot garden resembled a baseball field during a rain delay.

"When you've got a shot at the world record, you take extra precautions," says Black.

Harvest day loomed bright and clear. A small crowd watched as Black and crew hauled the pumpkin into his pickup truck, which was parked in a ditch to make the move easier. The pumpkin nestled snugly in the truck bed, which immediately sank 2 feet.

Black covered his entry with blankets and set off for the pumpkin pageant, a 22-hour drive from his home. During the journey, a milk jug filled with water fed the pumpkin's "umbilical cord," a piece of vine still attached to the stem. This kept the fruit from losing weight.

Black's victory capped a Cinderella story for the 36-year-old slipper-factory worker. Though he labored for years to savor the moment, Black gives most of the credit to his fairy godmother -- Mother Nature.

"She's the one who decides how big a pumpkin is going to get," he says. "You might add 20 pounds for all your hard work, but that seed already knows how big a fruit it's going to give you."

He pauses.

"I just wish the seeds could talk, so you'd know which ones to plant."

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