Just like gardeners, the act of gardening can take on many forms. As you and I fret over important backyard challenges such as why our hydrangeas aren’t blooming or how come that tomato just won’t ripen fast enough, others are dealing with much bigger issues. Scattered across the country, there are a few thousand ‘extreme gardeners’ that methodically plod through the art and science of competing to grow the world’s largest pumpkin each year.
Steve Connolly, of Sharon, Massachusetts is one such gardener. Soft-spoken mechanical engineer by day, Giant Pumpkin Growing Super Hero by night and weekends, Steve’s been in the news a lot lately. With just a few weeks before the big weigh-off, word was getting around that this might be the all time mother of all pumpkins! Until now, the world record, set by Joe Jutras in 2007 weighed in at an astounding 1698 pounds and shattering the previous record of 1502 pounds set in just the previous year. Although not an exact science, approximate weights can be calculated from measuring its size. With more than a week to go, Steve’s pumpkin appeared to be approaching 1900 pounds! Although the final, official weight would not be known for more than a week, all eyes and ears were on this “Beast from the East” as it had been affectionately dubbed.
Ironically, in spite of all the efforts to beef up weight and mass during the growing phase, (gaining in excess of 40 pounds per day during its peak), this pumpkin had become so big on a hearty diet of organic nutrients, it was now at risk of breaking up or even exploding. That’s exactly what happened to the other four pumpkins Steve was nurturing as possible contenders. Now down to his last card, efforts were made to drastically slow the growth. Roots were severed, water intake slashed and I’m betting a few prayers lifted up, all in an effort to keep her intact for just a few more days.
This was a story garnering huge national media and a cult following growing as fast as his pumpkin. The Today Show, NPR and a host of newspapers latched on the story and followed it closely.
On a glorious fall Saturday morning of October 11, Steve and his small army successfully transported her to the Topsfield Fair weigh-off in Topsfield, MA. for the moment of truth. A large audience witnessed the drama as the pumpkin weigh-off was down to the final two contenders; Current world-record holder Joe Jutras’s entry and Steve Connolly’s Beast from the East. With great fanfare, Joe’s pumpkin weighed in at impressive 1507 pounds, the heaviest of the day…so far. As Steve’s entry was reverently hoisted onto the scales, a hushed murmur could be heard rapidly spreading through the crowd. They had detected what Steve was now seeing for the very first time; a small leak coming from the bottom of the pumpkin. His worst fears were coming true right before his eyes. Although it weighed in at 1,568 pounds (the largest pumpkin in the world for 2008), the rules are very clear. Due to this slight but costly imperfection, the “Beast” was out of contention!
Although no denying Steve’s disappointment, he immediately started looking ahead. She was quickly transported back home where he harvested the 584 seeds (he’s an engineer remember) from the belly of this otherwise flawless pumpkin. For many competitors, growing record setting vegetables is more business than gardening. Seeds from a consistent winning cultivar can fetch as much as $500 each. Steve’s already had numerous offers to purchase his seeds. Indeed, for the last 12 years, new records have been set with every competition. Much of that is due to advances in the genetic breeding of champion seeds. But that doesn’t account for the whole story. Many growers start with the same seed, but there is only one winner. And that’s where the gardener comes into play. Steve the businessman and competitor is already thinking ahead. The seed for next year is now safely stored away. But according to Steve; “It’s the gardener in him that still has another trick up his sleeve” and just possibly, the key to the 2009 world record pumpkin.