How do you pick an 850-pound pumpkin? The same way you grow it: with patience and care.
One wrong move and months of work could go splat.
Earlier this week at Sacramento’s Martin Luther King Jr. Community Garden, Jon Hunt cut his latest mammoth squash from its vine so it would have plenty of time to harden up before judgment day – the weigh-off at the Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin Festival.
Fresh pumpkin of any size can be fragile, Hunt explained. Some extra time off the vine toughens its outer shell, so it can take repeated rides on a forklift Saturday morning at the festival.
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A retired anesthesia technician, Hunt is a longtime pumpkin person. In 1994, he helped start the Elk Grove festival, originally conceived as a community harvest celebration. In 1999, he won Half Moon Bay’s world championship pumpkin weigh-off with a 991-pound beauty. His personal best: 1,153.5 pounds at the 2008 Elk Grove festival.
Back then, Hunt devoted all his free time to pumpkins. He grew eight at a time, each with its own 800-square-foot plot.
“I’d spend two, three hours every night, taking care of my pumpkins,” he said. “One is more manageable.”
Pumpkin competition has grown fierce along with the prized squash, Hunt noted. “(Last year’s) Half Moon winner was 1,910 pounds. The Elk Grove winner was even bigger (1,994.5 pounds).”
The world record changes almost every year; it’s currently 2,624.6 pounds, set at the 2016 European Championship weigh-off in Germany.
After a nine-year break from competition, Hunt decided to grow another giant pumpkin this summer, just for fun.
“Sacramento is a hard place to grow giant pumpkins,” Hunt said. “They like cooler weather. That’s why you see so many giants coming out of Napa. They’re 10, 15 degrees cooler than us in summer.”
His current quest started in February when he attended a seed swap with other local growers. He picked seed with champion bioplasm. Its mother was “1718 Ceja,” a 1,718-pound red-orange pumpkin grown by Napa’s Jose Ceja; its father was a 2,250-pound white-skinned giant. Like all oversize pumpkins, both parents were strains of Atlantic Giant, a hubbard squash-pumpkin cross developed in Canada. (The hubbard genes give the pumpkin thicker walls, so it doesn’t collapse under its own weight.)
Like many competitive growers, Hunt has his pumpkin protocol down to a science with everything timed to produce a winning gourd the first weekend in October. While waiting for spring temperatures to warm, he built up his soil with lots of compost, made at his community garden. On April 28, he planted the seed indoors in special potting mix in a 4-inch pot, then transferred the tiny seedling to his garden plot on May 10, shortly after the first two leaves appeared.
That’s also when he could determine which way the vine will grow. Hunt wanted to give his pumpkin the maximum room to roam within his garden plot’s 20- by 20-foot boundaries. The more vine, the more potential growth.
As the vine grew, Hunt buried its segments. At every node where the leaf connects to the stem, new roots grew, too. That gives the vine more power to pull up water and nutrients, vital to rapid growth.
How rapid? The vine stretched 3 feet longer each day, Hunt calculated. The pumpkin set July 5; by August, it grew 30 pounds a day.
“In 10 days, it put on 300 pounds,” he said. “That’s when I knew I was in trouble; I needed it to get in the 40 pounds a day range to be really competitive.”
Fertilized with kelp and fish emulsion, the vine zig-zagged across its plot, reaching more than 22 feet in length. Every inch of his plot was covered with pumpkin vine and leaves as big as trash can lids, shading the bare earth beneath.
“Mulch can rot the vine, so I don’t use it,” he said. “But the leaves shade everything and keep the roots cool.”
They also help keep the soil moist, another plus for pumpkins.
In September, disease almost wiped out Hunt’s one-pumpkin patch. A form of mosaic virus attacked the leaves and withered the vine. Rules of his all-organic garden prevented spraying chemical deterrents. (Hunt saved the pumpkin by painting its stem with diluted bleach.) By October, the gargantuan gourd appeared to be sitting alone on bare dirt. But what was left of its vine and foliage kept adding on pounds to the solo squash, albeit at a much slower rate.
Using “pumpkin math,” Hunt figured his entry’s weight in a formula that combines its circumference (151 inches) with measurements side to side (100 inches) and stem to blossom end (93 inches). That added up to 855 pounds. Every extra inch means another seven pounds.
“That’s just an estimate,” he said. “I won’t know for sure until it’s on the scale.”
With an eye on the calendar, Hunt kept his fingers crossed while plotting pumpkin transportation to the festival.
After years of growing giants, he has special tarps, straps and other pumpkin-lifting equipment. Hunt considered several options.
“We’re close to the high school; I thought I’d ask the football team at Christian Brothers to lift it,” he said, only half joking. “Or we could get a sling and a winch.”
Instead, a friend with a John Deere tractor rolled up to Hunt’s pumpkin. They used the tarp and straps to cradle the precious load and lift it – slowly – onto Hunt’s pickup truck, an appropriate ride to the festival. Its license: PMKNMAN.
“I know I can’t grow a one-ton pumpkin under Sacramento conditions; it just gets too hot,” Hunt said. “But I’m hoping I might have a chance in ‘People’s Choice.’ That’s the award for most beautiful pumpkin, voted on by the people who come to the festival. This one may not be the biggest, but it sure is gorgeous.”
Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin Festival
Where: Elk Grove Regional Park, 9950 Elk Grove Florin Road, Elk Grove
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 7 and 8
Admission: Free; parking, $10.
Pumpkin weigh-off: 9 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 7