Every gardener has a dream — a perfectly-manicured lawn, a bumper crop of healthy tomatoes, a backyard full of native North Carolina plants. This time of year, as fair season rolls around, that dream may take the shape of a bright blue ribbon dangling from a hefty, orange pumpkin. The bigger the pumpkin, the better.
The parade of mammoth pumpkins that leads to the weighing station at the Dixie Classic Fair in Winston-Salem is a sight to behold. Proud growers appear in the early morning hours of opening day with their blanket-draped pumpkins in tow. Some of the large, orange globes arrive in pickup trucks. Others appear on trailers, well-padded and secured with ropes or straps. It’s a scene repeated at county fairs around the state each fall.
The excitement only escalates as the day progresses with pickups waiting their turns at the scales. It may take up to five people to hoist a behemoth onto the scales. All eyes watch for the final count — 200, 300, 400 pounds, some years even more. To a degree, competitive pumpkin growers are at the mercy of the season — weather, temperatures, and growing conditions have an effect on the ultimate weight of each pumpkin.My own experience with a big pumpkin competition began with my 10-year-old son. He was certain he could grow a 100-pounder for the fair the following year. As a veteran gardener myself, I thought nothing of taking on the challenge. We’d be a perfect father-and-son duo and, if nothing else, we’d consider it male bonding. Our dream of the 100-pounder was fueled by a trip to Barnes and Noble to purchase a picture book on the subject — for my son, of course.
As planned, our project began the following April with a pack of big pumpkin seeds bought at a garden center. We managed to produce a couple of fine seedlings by planting seeds in peat pots placed on a warm, sunny windowsill. By late May, three plants were strategically placed in our garden with ample room to grow. Weekly feedings and routine watering produced several yards of vines by summer. Not a day went by that we didn’t check on our vines. Weeds weren’t a problem thanks to our ingenious use of landscape fabric to cover the ground, protecting rampant shoots and developing pumpkins.
Our next step involved fruit thinning — not for the faint of heart! This most traumatic stage requires removing all but one of the pumpkin fruits. With a little luck, you can size up the crop and decide which fruit has the best shot of reaching maturity. It felt like I was pulling teeth when it came time to pluck off our marble-size fruit. It’s hard to explain to a child why you remove pumpkins to improve your chances of winning big. Our goal was to channel all the plant’s energy into a single fruit.
After that hurdle, we faced another obstacle — dreaded leaf diseases. As much as I hated spraying pesticides, chemicals were our only recourse as the heat and humidity of July set in.
Surviving a Tar Heel summer in the garden is no small thing. The longer the days, the more pests show up at the buffet. We thought we were over the hump by August until deer and borers discovered our pumpkin patch. Overnight, we were down to one lone fruit to pamper into fall. With the help of a wooden-crate-like structure and polyester shade cloth to protect our prize, we managed to shelter our “giant” pumpkin until show time.
That September, with pre-entry tags in hand, we carefully loaded our fruit on our pickup and headed to the Dixie Classic fairgrounds.
While we needed no help in hoisting our pumpkin onto the scales, my son could not have been prouder. The excitement in his face was priceless — making the long growing season worthwhile.
He walked away from the competition with a memory to last a lifetime — his 23-pound, “giant” pumpkin won a blue ribbon in the youth class and a cash prize. We missed our target by a little more than 75 pounds, but who cares? The joy was in the journey.
My son and I never attempted to grow another big pumpkin for the fair. Although that day, a kind farmer gave my son a small envelope containing seed progenies from a champion pumpkin, along with a friendly note encouraging him to compete again. Maybe, one day he will enter a big-pumpkin contest with his child.
My son walked away from the competition with a memory to last a lifetime. And I walked away with a valuable lesson for any master gardener – when it comes to crops, you can always blame your failures on a “bad season.”
For more than 30 years, Toby Bost has been a resource to North Carolina gardeners and growers as an agricultural extension agent, a trainer for master gardeners, and an author. His books include The Successful Gardener Guide: North Carolina, North Carolina Gardener’s Guide, and The Carolina Gardener’s Guide. He can be reached through Our State magazine at firstname.lastname@example.org