by Kathleen Reynolds
Competitive Gardening is a big, big deal. Big, meaning large or giant. Vegetables range from humongous tomatoes at more than 11 pounds, long gourds at 173.75 inches, 350.5-pound watermelons and 14-inch chili peppers.
But the big daddy of big vegetables is the giant pumpkin
The Guinness World Record was set in 2021 by Italian grower Stefano Cutrupi; whose gigantic pumpkin weighed in at 2,702.9 pounds.
Most people in Northern California have heard of the giant pumpkin contest in Half Moon Bay, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. There’s also the Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin Festival. But there are competitions worldwide.
Most of these competitions are sanctioned by a group called the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth. The mission of this group, according to their website, is to “…cultivate the hobby of growing giant pumpkins and other giant fruits throughout the world by establishing standards and regulations that ensure quality of fruit, fairness of competition, recognition of achievement, fellowship and education for all participating growers and weigh-off sites.”
One active Napa member of the GPC is Gary Miller. Born and raised on a farm in Ohio, he’s spent the last 30 years on his property in the Coombsville area. He shares his “almost four acres” with 100 chickens and the deer who roam the unfenced part of the site.
“When you’ve experienced farming firsthand, I thought
growing giant pumpkins would be a piece of cake,” says Gary. “Boy, was I wrong.”
“I admit to being wrong, though, because that’s how you get good.”
He did better than “good.” He won the 40th Annual Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off 2013 in Half Moon Bay with a pumpkin that tipped the scales at 1,985 pounds. This year, he was inducted into the Pumpkin Growers Hall of Fame, the highest honor for folks who grow this amazing fruit—yes, pumpkins are classified as a fruit.
He started growing giant pumpkins in late ‘90s.
“At the time, I was a landscape designer,” he says. “I received a commission from Mr. and Mrs. Mondavi to grow a pumpkin that was around 500 pounds. I had no idea if I could. But I did and went on to deliver one to them every year afterward.”
The Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas requests about a dozen of his pumpkins annually for display. Each of those averages about 1000 pounds each.
He says there’s no dark secret to growing such behemoths. Good seeds, rich soil and cooperative weather help, but beginners often make a few mistakes.
“Beginners can overcompensate with fertilizer,” he says. “You must check the leaves to determine if you need to fertilize. If so, use it first thing in the morning. You apply a progression from nitrogen, then potassium to potash. Everything I grow is 100% organic.”
The only seed he uses is the Atlantic Giant and he starts them in small pots.
“I put them in a cooler that I keep at 85 degrees by using a 15-watt lightbulb. You adjust it if it gets too warm. I’ve learned over the years to vent a corner of the cover to keep a consistent temperature. Planting starts in the vicinity of April 15 and May 1 is the deadline to have them in the ground.”
Then comes tending to the plants. They must be protected from wind, blanketed against the cold, tented for shade when it gets warm and plucked of smaller pumpkins along the vine. Gary says his best advice is to watch the weather all the time.
“What surprises people is that I always water when it rains. We usually get ¼” of rain, that won’t even soak the soil for one inch. So, water in the rain.”
“My pet peeve is the hose sprayer,” says Gary. “They’re a waste of water. You’re moving the soil, not reaching the roots. They’re only good for spraying your kids—or your spouse. Set the hose on low and move it from plant to plant.”
“I tell people to learn as much as they can. That’s what I do. Back when I started, there were very few knowledgeable growers. One couple who mentored me was Pete and Cindy Glasier. They helped me acquire seeds and educated me on the basics of growing these giants. Now there’s the Internet and you can learn about growing for free.”
He’s not optimistic about his chances at this year’s weigh-offs.
“You can set your clock by whoever has the best weather will have the best pumpkin. I don’t have a chance this year mainly because of the wind. But I encourage everyone to enter even if they know they won’t win. Weigh-offs are fundraisers. There’ve been hundreds of thousands of dollars raised for charity over the years. Everybody should attend and participate if you can.”
When harvesting is finished, Gary puts any discarded pumpkins to good use. He feeds them to his chickens. He says they make great eggs that he sells at his wife’s art gallery, Jessel Gallery, on Atlas Peak Road.
“Pumpkin growing is a lot of work, but it’s fun. When people ask me why I do it, I tell them, ‘You have to be crazy.’”
For information about pumpkin growing and seed exchanges, check the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth’s website, gpc1.org.