By Linda Dillman
Some people grow competition roses. Others grow prize-worthy tomatoes, but for Madison Township Trustee John Pritchard, those categories are small potatoes compared to growing behemoth pumpkins for the Circleville Pumpkin Show competition on Oct. 17.
Pritchard started growing competition-worthy pumpkins in 2000 after a friend, Ted Scott, introduced him to the wonders of growing squash potentially as heavy as a horse. He has never grown the traditional jack-o’-lantern size pumpkin.
This is his third attempt at coaxing a small seed into a vegetable large enough for a child to play inside in pursuit of producing the heaviest pumpkin at the show and a $2,000 first prize.
“I grew them in 2001 and 2002,” said Pritchard. “The first year my pumpkin was 269 lbs. The second year, 2002, I lost all of my pumpkins to a disease. I had one estimated to be around 450 lbs. before I lost the plant to a disease. In 2003, I went into the Army. Now that I am back home, my dad let me plow up a portion of his side lot to use for my patch.”
Pritchard starts the growing process in late April. He said it takes 50 to 60 days of plant growth to get to the point where pollination can take place and the pumpkin starts growing. It takes 110 to 120 days for a pumpkin to fully mature.
He got a late start this year and was not able to transplant the young seedlings into the ground in a field in Canal Winchester until May 26. During the peak of the growing season, giant pumpkins can gain 35 to 40 pounds a day, if conditions are good.
“This has been a tough year to grow because of the heat, humidity and rain, but I think maybe the delay may help me get to the show,” said Pritchard, who is nurturing three giant competition pumpkins under protective cover. “Right now, I have two pumpkins estimated at a little over 900 lbs. I’d like to get one to 1,000 lbs., but that might not happen because the days are getting shorter, and the weather is getting cooler.”
According to Pritchard, pumpkins grown competitively are almost always a strain of the Atlantic Giant Pumpkin and his 2018 seeds came from fellow club members in the Circleville Pumpkin Growers Association.
This year, Pritchard, who graduated from the Ohio State University College of Agriculture with a major in agronomy, is growing seeds from Dr. Robert Liggett, a well-known name in the history of the Pumpkin Show competition.
“He gave me seeds from two different pumpkins he raised,” said Pritchard. “One he grew in 2013 that weighed 1,633 lbs.—known as the Liggett 1633—and one in 2015 that weighed 1,368 lbs.—known as the Liggett 1368. You can also buy seeds from some of the biggest pumpkins grown in North America and Europe. Sometimes these seeds garner $75 to $100, or more for one seed. The current world record holder at 2,624 lbs. was grown in Belgium. The North American record at 2,363 lbs. was grown in Washington.”
The process in growing giant pumpkins is extensive. Growers sometimes help bees by pollinating their plants themselves so they know the pedigree of the pumpkin that is grown. Competitive growers also cross pollinate their pumpkins to grow progressively bigger pumpkins.
“I allowed the bees to pollinate the two that are estimated over 900 lbs. and the one I pollinated is estimated to be around 750 lbs.,” said Pritchard. “I am going to try to get a few different seeds next year. I believe that local—Ohio and surrounding states—are the best.”
Soil, water and nutrients are closely monitored throughout the growing season. Vines are pruned down to one pumpkin per plant. Insects like the cucumber beetle and squash vine borer, and fungal infections such as powdery mildew can destroy a plant. Too much water will sometimes contribute to pumpkins splitting/cracking all the way through.
“This year was tough,” said Pritchard. “The heat, along with periods of heavy rain, necessitated closely monitoring to spray at the right time for diseases, insects, in addition to walking the line between too much fertilizer and not enough.”
Transporting a giant pumpkin 20 miles south to Circleville is a careful process.
“The first and only pumpkin I got to the show was 269 lbs.,” said Pritchard. “I lifted it with a few friends into the back of my truck. I will definitely need help this year. I am a member of the Circleville Pumpkin Growers Club and one of the many benefits is a group of great folks that are willing to help you and a club that has the equipment to help pick up a giant pumpkin.”
The pumpkin show weigh-in begins at 9:15 a.m. on Oct. 17. The show is free and open to the public from Oct.17 through Oct. 20.