By Shannon Moreau
Fall brings cooler nights, apple picking, and giant vegetables—specifically pumpkins! Giant pumpkins are a big part of October, even outside of the plant community – just look to Halloween Town and Peanuts. Don’t be fooled by Charlie Brown, though. Gigantic pumpkins are the real deal and can be found at giant pumpkin weigh-offs held around the globe and they are a staple in many state fairs and fall festivals.
Here at Fort Collins Nursery we are preparing for our 15th annual Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off & Fall Jamboree, a contest sanctioned by the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth. Each year dozens of growers bring in their giant gourds to be measured against others in the community as well as competing against their own personal records to see how much they’ve grown (pun intended) between each year. In its early days our contest typically had 10+ growers participate but ever since 2019 we have consistently seen over 20 participants compete each season.
Surprisingly, these pumpkins are rarely grown in vast fields. They are often grown closer to homes and in a wide variety of locations. Last year’s winner was grown in a front yard here in Fort Collins! To help get you in the mood for this year’s contest, here’s a bit of the history behind giant pumpkins and how to grow your very own.
How long have people been growing giant pumpkins?
While we don’t have an exact date, extra large pumpkins have been grown since the early 1800s when the cultivar Mammoth was available and widely planted. Mammoth wasn’t replaced until 1979 when a farmer named Howard Dill brought his 438 lb pumpkin to a weigh-off in Philadelphia and won. He continued growing pumpkins with the seeds from his winner which resulted in bigger and bigger pumpkins each year. He settled on the name ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’ for his strain, which is still the variety of choice for all competitive growers.
While a single pumpkin may only be entered in one contest, competitors frequently grow multiple pumpkins to enter multiple weigh-offs across the country. After their life on the competition circuit, many of these giant squash are donated to organizations for fall events or even food for animals at zoos and farms. Locally, donated giant pumpkins can be seen at the Gardens on Spring Creek at their ‘Pumpkins on Parade’ event.
After the competition it’s time to dive in and harvest seeds. Many of the seeds are kept by the growers for next year’s plants, while some are sold to other growers wanting the biggest and best genetics for their own pumpkin patch. Growers with champion pumpkins can sell their seeds to other growers for upwards of one hundred dollars!
How to grow your own giant pumpkin
As mentioned above, ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’ is the standard seed for growing massive pumpkins. According to The Farmer’s Almanac, this seed will reliably produce a pumpkin between 200-300 lbs with little care. Many seeds that serious growers use are selected exclusively from other heavyweights. Once the female flower is fertilized, a small round fruit will develop. Removing additional fruits on that vine is vital, ensuring all of the nutrients go to just one young fruit. These giants take between 100 – 120 days to mature, so starting your seeds early in a container that can be directly planted into your garden gives you a leg up.
Make sure your growing area has plenty of sunlight, rich soil, water, and ample space (typically 400-600 square feet per plant). Pumpkins are heavy feeders and will suffer if they go dry during our hottest months. Keep an eye on your soil moisture to stay ahead of any drought stress. When the goal is producing the biggest and best, you don’t want your vines to be stressed in any way. Once it’s time to harvest and move your pumpkin, there are a few options. Smaller giants can be moved with a few people and a good tarp (100 – 400 lb range). Anything larger requires serious equipment such as a tractor or skid steer.
If you want to learn more about growing a competitive pumpkin, the Rocky Mountain Giant Vegetable Growers is a great group with helpful people who love nothing more than getting more people involved in growing giants.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the majesty and beauty of these giant pumpkins can only be truly appreciated when seen in person. Check out our event page for information about this year’s weigh-off (including great activities for kids) and mark your calendars. This is our favorite community event in the autumn and is a wonderful way to celebrate with the growers who dedicate so much time and energy to creating a truly rare spectacle!
Click here to see photos and winners from last year’s contest.
Click here to see a list of competition results from previous years.
Originally published on October 3rd, 2023.