If you’d started a giant pumpkin in your backyard last spring and tended to it assiduously (see my previous post), you might have a fruit large enough to take to the Damariscotta Pumpkinfest. Damariscotta, a town on the coast of Maine an hour north of Portland, is the place to win fame, if not fortune, every October. If you’ve got a pumpkin heavier than about 400 pounds, saw off the top of it, scoop out the innards, and get you and your mama down to the harbor to the Giant Pumpkin Regatta. My husband, Ted, and I went in 2011, and had a blast. The town’s streets are lined with dozens of carved giant pumpkins. Fortify yourself for a tour by starting at the all-you-can-eat pumpkin pancake breakfast. Or, afterwards, revive yourself at the pumpkin pie eating contest. There’s more entertainment: Watch a twenty-foot-tall catapult launch pumpkins thousands of feet through the air into Salt Bay where they land with a splash you might reasonably expect from a breaching whale.
‘Tis the season of Giant Pumpkin competitions. This year’s champion is 2032 pounds. Picture an orange SmartCar lying on its side, and you’ve about got it. So, how do you grow such a behemoth? A huge factor (so to speak) is genetics: you have to start with a seed from a Cucurbita Maxima. Germinate your seeds indoors in mid-April under a grow light. Then, about May 1, transplant the best one into well-fertilized soil outdoors. You’d best build a greenhouse the size of a doghouse over it. Experts bury heating cables to raise the soil temperature to an ideal 85 degrees.
One plant will ultimately take up a 30′ by 30′ patch of your yard. Its leaves will be as big as serving platters and hover above the vines on two-foot-tall stems. You’ll pinch off all the developing pumpkins but one, so all the plant’s energy will go into one fruit. Every day, you’ll go into the patch, arrange the rapidly growing vines, and pinch off excess leaves. (A messy tangle means some leaves will shade others, and shaded leaves are slacker leaves in gathering sunlight.) When your orange baby hits 220 pounds it will start to flatten out under the pressure of its own weight. By mid-summer, you’ll need to add as much as 125 gallons of water a day: a pumpkin is 90 percent water.
Ample water and ample soil nutrients are meaningful only if your pumpkin has a big root system to gather them. So, here’s a secret: dig a little trench ahead of your vines and bury each one as it creeps forward. Why? At every leaf axil (where a leaf stem emerges from the vine) is undifferentiated cell tissue that could produce either a new leaf, a bud, or a root. If you bury the axil, that tissue (called meristem) receives a chemical signal to produce a new root. These roots run shallow, though, so tread lightly when you walk in your patch. Expert growers have been spotted tending to their plants on snow skis!
(photo: Nancy Connolly)