Published Oct. 22, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “The Hunt for the Great Pumpkin: We’ve all heard stories of giant pumpkins, but did you know growing one is anything but a fluke of nature? There’s a scientific approach to it, and this Cheyenne grower is sharing his.”
By Barb Gorges
A man has to be serious about pumpkins to wear a shirt of printed pumpkin fabric. And that’s what Richard Franz wore, courtesy of the sewing skills of his wife, Sylvia, the day I visited him at his Cheyenne pumpkin patch.
Richard has been growing pumpkins since 1984, growing them here in Cheyenne the last 12 years. And not just any pumpkins, but giant pumpkins, because he competes every year to grow the biggest pumpkin he can.
He’s part of a group of local pumpkin growers that haul their harvest to certified scales and submit their records to the Atlantic Giant Genetics Cooperative, www.aggc.org.
Today’s prize winning giant pumpkins, including this year’s record-breaking 2009-pounder grown by Ron Wallace of Rhode Island, trace their genetics back to the Atlantic Giant variety grown by Howard Dill in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Serious competitors must provide parentage records when certifying their pumpkins. The pedigrees look like any genealogy chart, the individual pumpkins listed with three-part names: their weight, their grower and the year.
For as big as these pumpkins are, the actual amount of seed per pumpkin is only a couple handfuls. So seeds from a prize winner can go for $4 to $5 for a packet of two, Richard said. You better hope your germination technique is faultless.
Richard collects seed from his best pumpkins and saves it. Normally, pumpkin seeds are viable for several years, but he is attempting to duplicate the preservation conditions used by national seed saving vaults, including very low humidity that could keep them viable for many more.
Taking a scientific approach to cultivation (he has a degree in geology with a minor in chemistry), Richard’s pumpkins have progressed in size from 350 pounds in 1987 to 756 pounds in 2007, his biggest.
How to grow a giant
While there is a lot of pumpkin growing advice on the Internet, it’s best to seek out a local mentor since every location is different, calling for different techniques.
Ron Hoffman, of Riverton, who has the state record, starts his seeds outside in May, Richard said, compared to his own inside method described below.
When I visited Richard, it was the day after our first killing freeze of the season, Oct. 3, 13 days later than average. The pumpkin leaves were all furled and it was easy to see the layout of vines, now frozen, which Richard had arranged as they grew. But Richard’s pumpkins were safe, swathed in those quilted pads used by moving companies.
This year, his pumpkins are in the 200-300-pound range. Due to an unfortunate accident, these were six weeks behind the typical growing schedule (note: never water pumpkins with water you’ve acidified for your experiment in growing acid-loving blueberries). Still, it’s hard to imagine these fruits as big as exercise balance balls coming from mere pumpkin seeds.
Atlantic Giant seeds are available from many seed catalogs and through swaps and auctions listed on www.bigpumpkins.com, which also has general information for novice growers.
Mid-March, Richard grinds a little of the seed coat off the end of a seed opposite where the roots and stem emerge. Some people soak seeds in water for eight hours. Then he plants it in a 2.25-inch pot, in regular potting soil and puts it under florescent lights in his basement. A Master Gardener for 26 years, he grows many other fruits, vegetables and flowers.
Very soon after germination, when the leaf-like cotyledons open up, Richard moves the seedling to a 1-gallon pot. It is very important, he said, that the plant not get root-bound, with roots circling inside the pot. Unlike other plants whose roots can be untangled and spread out during transplanting, pumpkins are very finicky. “Pumpkins just don’t like their roots messed with, like a person with ticklish feet,” said Richard. He transplanted one root-bound plant that never grew beyond a half-dozen leaves.
By the time the pumpkin seedling’s roots hit the boundaries of the pot, about four weeks after germination, it’s time to plant it outside, even though it’s only mid-April. Richard warms the soil in advance by laying black plastic over it, leaving a planting hole in the middle. He usually grows two vines, planting on opposite sides of his patch which takes up a quarter of his suburban backyard. Some vine growth sneaks out onto the adjacent prairie.
To protect his plants, Richard erects little hoop houses about 2.5 feet high and 4 feet long, clear plastic stretched over plastic pipe bent in half circles, sometimes having to extend the length of the houses as the vines grow. Old Christmas lights inside provide extra heat and an eerie glow at night that at first caused the neighbors some consternation.
A superstructure of metal pipe over the whole pumpkin patch can support a temporary canopy for hail protection.
Richard uses a grid of plastic pipe laid on the ground with sprinkler heads sticking up about 2 feet high at intervals. The entire patch needs to be watered, not just where the plants were planted because the vines root as they travel over the ground. While even well-watered plants have leaves that wilt for a bit during the noonday sun, if they don’t recover when it gets cooler, look for cucumber beetles or try a calcium treatment.
Richard is experimenting with micronutrients, but recommends a balanced fertilizer like 10-10-10 (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium). More nutrients come from fall prep work: digging in the spent vines and leaves and adding lots of other compost. October is the perfect time to prepare for growing giant pumpkins.
Competitive growers have tried everything from injecting milk into stems (for the calcium), to fertilizing with molasses and raw manure, but “I haven’t seen anything to make a big difference,” said Richard.
By the beginning of June it is time to pollinate. Pumpkins have male and female flowers. Leaving pollination to nature is chancy so serious growers get up before the bees and do the pollinating themselves, bagging the flowers so they aren’t infiltrated by unknown pollen. If you grow vines from different seed sources, you can cross-pollinate and grow the resulting seeds the next season.
The roundest pumpkins have five ovaries, rather than four, and all have been fertilized.
To get the biggest pumpkin possible, allow only one pumpkin to develop per vine. There is some debate, Richard said, on whether this should be from the second or third female flower to develop, but because it sometimes happens that a pumpkin can quit growing after two weeks, he pollinates several and waits before choosing one. Then he cleanly cuts the others away. And every day or so, he must go out and cut away any pumpkins developing from natural pollination.
Keep the chosen pumpkin off the ground, on a board or some other surface that won’t get soggy.
You need seven friends to get your giant pumpkin onto a trailer for weighing—to roll the pumpkin onto a special tarp and to lift it with handles that accommodate two people per side.
Richard and his family have had a lot of fun making giant jack-o-lanterns, all recorded in a wonderful scrapbook made by one of his daughters. A portable electric jig-saw with a 10-inch blade is now the preferred carving tool.
Pumpkins can last in a cool place, like the garage, for months, providing their skin has no holes or scrapes that might let bacteria in.
Sylvia, Richard’s wife, is a good sport about this pumpkin mania. With a master’s in home economics, she has perfected many pumpkin-based recipes, which is good–half of a giant pumpkin’s weight is edible flesh. Sylvia cuts it into chunks to give away or to bake, puree and store in the freezer for recipes such as Frosted Pumpkin Walnut Cookies, a favorite with participants at pumpkin weigh-ins.
Barb’s garden report: biggest Cinderella Pumpkin: 15 lbs.; biggest Jack-Be-Little Pumpkin: 12 ounces.
Frosted Pumpkin Walnut Cookies
Recipe provided by Sylvia Franz
½ cup butter/margarine
1 ½ cups packed brown sugar
1 cup cooked pumpkin or canned
½ teaspoon lemon extract
½ teaspoon vanilla
2 ½ cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1 cup chopped walnuts
Cream butter and add brown sugar, beating well.
Add eggs, beat after each.
Stir in pumpkin and flavorings.
Add dry ingredients.
Stir in chopped walnuts.
Drop by teaspoons onto greased cookie sheet 2 inches apart.
Bake at 375 degrees for 12 minutes.
Cool…frost. Yield: 7 ½ dozen.
¼ cup butter/margarine
2 ¼ cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons milk
¾ teaspoon maple extract
Add 1 cup powdered sugar, beating with electric mixer.
Add milk and rest of sugar.
Add maple extract and beat well.