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Learn how to grow giant pumpkins at Oct. 27 workshop
Messenger photos by Kristy Zurbrick
London resident Dan Kirts plans to enter this giant pumpkin, which measures 142 inches around and weighs an estimated 750 pounds, in a sanctioned weigh-off scheduled for Oct. 16 in Circleville. He’ll then display it at a workshop in London on Oct. 27 at which he will share tips with the public on how to grow super-sized pumpkins.
Dan Kirts and his daughter, Serenity, 12, measure a long gourd Kirts’ younger daughter, Lana, 9, grew this summer. Lana plans to enter the 110-inch gourd in the Southern Ohio Giant Pumpkin Growers Weigh-Off set for Oct. 16 in Circleville. Serenity plans to enter her 100-pound pumpkin in the Oakland Nurseries Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off set for Oct. 14 in Dublin.
In the world of super-sized pumpkins, some growers closely guard their secrets to success, and some bare their green thumbs for all to see. Dan Kirts of London is one of the latter.
“I want people to have as much fun doing this as I do,” said Kirts, who began growing giant pumpkins as a teenager and, for the past several years, has competed in sanctioned weigh-ins, his heaviest entry topping out at 1,242 pounds.
Kirts will share tips for growing big pumpkins and gourds at 10 a.m. Oct. 27 at the Gwynne Conservation Center, 640 Arbuckle Road, London. Admission is free. Kirts will give away seeds from some of his former behemoths. The event is sponsored by the Madison County Master Gardeners.
For the past seven years, Kirts has been a member of the Southern Ohio Giant Pumpkin Growers Club, one of dozens of such clubs around the world. He swaps stories, photos, ideas and seeds with fellow hobbyists online, in person and by mail. When September and October hit, the buzz is all about who has the biggest pumpkins.
Last week, the giant pumpkin community was buzzing about news of a new world record. A grower from Rhode Island took first place with a 2,009-pound pumpkin at the Topsfield Fair in Massachussetts. He won $5,500 for first place and an additional $10,000 for breaking the one-ton mark.
“He was the first guy to top 1,500 pounds; now he’s the first guy to go over 2,000,” Kirts said. “And I’ve heard through the grapevine that that wasn’t even his biggest pumpkin!”
Kirts’ enthusiasm is infectious. Even in a year when his backyard patch produced just one giant pumpkin, a 750-pounder, his eyes light up when he talks about the ins and outs of his unique hobby.
It all starts with good soil and good seeds, he said. A garden full of organic matter, especially rotted manure, is a must. Space is essential, too. Each giant pumpkin and its accompanying network of vines need about a 30x30-foot space.
As for the seeds, a run-of-the-mill packet from the store won’t do. Seeds from pumpkins bred to be whoppers are key.
“Whenever somebody gets a good cross, people by the hundreds will be trying to get those seeds,” Kirts said.
Sometimes, clubs sell or auction off desirable seeds to raise money for weigh-off prizes. Kirts said he’s heard of a single seed going for $1,800. That’s definitely not the norm. Seeds typically sell for $5 to $50 each. Kirts himself rarely pays for seeds.
“You get to know people in the hobby and become friends with them, and you just trade with each other,” he said.
Kirts himself often goes one better.
“I just give mine away to anyone who takes them... One pumpkin can produce up to 600 seeds, so I have suitcases full of them,” he said.
After good soil and good seeds comes diligence, science and luck. Kirts hand-pollinates three or four promising blossoms per plant. When he sees which blossom is going to take off, he plucks off all others so the plant can concentrate its energy into producing that one pumpkin.
“During prime growing time, a pumpkin can grow up to 60 pounds a day,” he said. “They get so heavy, they can’t hold up their own weight. That’s why they tend to get long and wide.”
Kirts controls what he can, from applying fertilizer to strengthen the plant, to covering the maturing pumpkin with a blanket to keep the sun from drying it out. Oftentimes, Mother Nature throws in a few curve balls, like this summer’s drought.
Too little rain can stunt a pumpkin’s growth; too much rain in a short time can cause a pumpkin to explode. Too much heat can dry it out, leading to weight loss. And then there are the bugs, the worst of which is the cucumber beetle, which can wipe out an entire patch.
Like any seasoned gardener, Kirts knows these curve balls are part of the game. Likewise, he knows that sometimes you hit one (or more) out of the park, like in 2007, when he not only grew that 1,242-pounder (good for second place at one of the Ohio contests), but also produced a 989-pounder, a 942-pounder and a 701-pounder.
He plans to enter this year’s 750-pounder in the weigh-off his club is hosting Oct. 16 in Circleville. Cash prizes will go to the top 20 pumpkins, with first place taking home $2,000. The contest also includes categories for the biggest squash, watermelons, field pumpkins and long gourds. Kirts’ will display his contest pumpkin at the Oct. 27 workshop.
To Learn More
The following are a few of the websites dedicated to the hobby of growing giant pumpkins.
• www.bigpumpkins.com—This site features grower diaries, message boards, photo galleries, how-to tips and more.
• greatpumpkincommonwealth.com—This organization sets standards for growth and competition among giant pumpkin growers. The site includes a comprehensive contest calendar (Ohio events are listed in the “Great Lakes” region) and contest results and pictures.
• www.sogpg.com—This is the site for the Southern Ohio Giant Pumpkin Growers, one of dozens of clubs around the world that supports and promotes the hobby.
Life After Weigh-Off
What becomes of giant pumpkins once their competition days are over? Here are some of the possibilities, according to giant pumpkin grower, Dan Kirts of London:
• Yard Art: Some big pumpkins become impressive jack-o-lanterns for Halloween.
“The walls of the pumpkins can be eight to 12 inches thick, so you need a machete to cut into them. The only light you see is what comes out of the holes you cut,” Kirts said.
• Fine Art: When professional sculptors get their hands on a giant pumpkin, the results can be spectacular. Five years ago, an artist transformed one of Kirts’ pumpkins into Hagrid, a character from J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” book series. The sculpture was displayed at the Ohio governor’s mansion in Bexley.
• Dessert: A big pumpkin can make a lot of pumpkin pies, though Kirts said he’s not sure how tasty they’d be. Giant pumpkin flesh can be extra stringy.
• Catapult Fodder: “Chunkin’ punkins” is the fine art of launching pumpkins into the air using a catapult. Props go to the contraption that sends the pumpkin the furthest.
• Car Crunchers: At least one area radio station makes a tradition of dropping big pumpkins from great heights onto donated automobiles. “It’s amazing how much damage the pumpkins do to the cars!” Kirts said.
• River Runners: Hollow out a giant pumpkin, attach a trolling motor and voila! You have an entry into a “pumpkin regatta.” With the help of sponsors, organizers of this year’s Operation Pumpkin Weigh-Off in Hamilton, Ohio, paid $350 each for regatta-worthy pumpkins weighing 600 to 800 pounds. The race is set to take place at 1 p.m. Oct. 7 on the Miami River.
• Television Stars: “Good Morning America” dedicates a segment each fall to the country’s top pumpkins.
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