Inside the world of competitive giant pumpkin growing

Steve Geddes knows a thing or two about growing giant pumpkins. He’s grown plenty of them during the last 10 years at his home in Boscawen, each ginormous gourd threatening to outweigh the last. This year, though, Geddes smashed all previous North American records, with a giant pumpkin weighing a gargantuan 2,528 pounds.

Geddes’ record-breaking pumpkin was officially recognized in September at the Deerfield Fair. Years of prodigious pumpkin production has made him something of a celebrity in the world of competitive giant pumpkin growing. But Geddes hasn’t always been giant pumpkin fan he is today. In fact, when he first heard about growing giant pumpkins, his assessment was blunt.

 “I said, ‘This is the dumbest thing I have ever heard of. It is foolish. It’s silly. You’re adults,’” Geddes recalled.

This is the story of how he changed his mind—and how he’s helping the next generation of giant pumpkin growers cultivate their crops.

A seed is planted

Geddes has been producing prize-winning pumpkins for a decade. But before that, it took a full four years of convincing to get Geddes to give giant pumpkin growing a try.

Peter Carter, a coworker of Geddes’ and a longtime member of the New Hampshire Giant Pumpkin Growers’ Association, is to blame, Geddes says. Carter saw in Geddes the qualities of a potential champion: a little competitiveness and experience working with vine crops. Carter was persistent in inviting Geddes to join the Granite State’s competitive pumpkin growing community.

But Geddes rebuffed him. The sport was ridiculous, he would say. As a long-time gardener, he knew that giant pumpkins take up a lot of space and require a lot of care and labor. And then, after all that work, you don’t even get to eat them.

“I am beyond the age where a ribbon excites me,” Geddes would tell Carter. “Just, no. No thank you.”

But Carter persisted, and the following year, he decided to appeal to Geddes’ innate curiosity.

“He came into my office in early June and he took a two gallon pot with a pumpkin plant in it and dropped it on my desk,” said Geddes. “There is nothing that grows as aggressively as these plants when they are healthy. I have an inquisitive nature. Watching something like a fruit, on this planet, growing 52 pounds in a day, basically the size of a small child, is just hard to wrap your head around. It’s fascinating.”

Geddes was hooked. Within a week, he established pumpkin plants in his gardens. And by the end of the season, Geddes had what is known among experts as a wicked big pumpkin. How big? NHGPGA member Jim Kuhn, known for his knack for estimating a pumpkin’s weight at a glance, pegged it at about 1,000 pounds, good for a first year grower.

What do you do with a pumpkin that big? Geddes initially looked to his chainsaw. ”I was planning on cutting it up and putting it into the compost. I had no idea what to do with it and no means to move it,” he said.

But Kuhn and fellow NHGPGA member Bruce Hooker had other non-chainsaw related plans. Hooker offered to transport the ginormous gourd to the Topsfield Fair, where Geddes would participate in his first pumpkin weigh-off.

“I had never met (Hooker) before,” said Geddes. “He showed up with a pallet rack and a lifting ring, and we were off. So there’s the story of how I got hooked. It isn’t just the fascination of growing the plants, it’s the people involved.”

Secrets of a champion

It wasn’t long before Geddes became a NHGPGA member and joined the Granite State’s giant pumpkin community. A benefit of association membership is an annual educational meeting at the start of the growing season. George Hamilton, a UNH Cooperative Extension food and agriculture field specialist, has been organizing this meeting for 19 years. “When the NHGPGA formed, they were regularly asking me questions, so we started an annual educational meeting,” said Hamilton. “It might be the longest standing regular educational meeting in the country for giant pumpkin growers.”

Competitive pumpkin growing, like many agricultural endeavors, is rife with myths, legends, snake oils and witches’ brews. The promise of easy results without hard work or research is tempting. But Geddes is not a fan of the easy way out.

“We might be experts in growing, but the information and knowledge we have about what is going on might not actually be accurate,” said Geddes. “This is where my hat comes off to George. One of the biggest advantages with the New Hampshire club, and we are really gifted, is that we have access to true evidence based, science based information through Cooperative Extension.”

Any New England gardener or farmer can tell you that our growing seasons are, to put it nicely, variable. This year followed that volatile pattern, and many giant pumpkin growers suffered damage and loss due to the significant rainfall and humidity.

Geddes grows his pumpkins in sand, which allows water to drain away from the roots. This was a contributing factor to his championship season. “For me, it could rain three inches and I would be watering the next day,” he said “This summer’s warm nights really helped them grow, too. Once it drops below the 60s at night, the growth slows way down. I would say that I could predict pretty honestly if I had warmer weather for the last 10 days before Deerfield, I would have had the world record.”

A wicked big pumpkin

Listening to giant pumpkin growers talk about rates of growth is more algebraic than agricultural. Geddes keeps electronic files to track the growth of his pumpkins and considers himself less neurotic about it than some other growers. “As we grow we can measure the pumpkin by measuring it three ways: x axis, y axis and circumference. Some growers want to know every day, and they are usually within 5 percent of the actual weight. The problem with weighing every day is that a half inch variance in where your tape lands could mean your measurements are off. The truth is you need to go with the averages, so I go with five day averages,” Geddes said.

Until this year, he had never had a pumpkin grow more than 38 pounds in a day. At the end of July, Geddes’ champion pumpkin was growing at the mind-boggling rate of 52 pounds a day. “At that point I was thinking the potential is there, but there is no way of knowing in New Hampshire. If we get a cold snap the growth just shuts down,” Geddes said. “The other factors of insects and disease are complicating, and again, this is where George is a goldmine. He gives us updates on diseases coming in so we can be prepared. If you aren’t prepared for downy mildew when it comes in, your season could end awfully quickly.”

Fourteen giant pumpkin growers keep squash vine borer (SVB) traps on their property. Hamilton counts the pests and closely monitors their numbers. He then distributes an email to the NHGPGA noting any SVB concerns, along with other pest issue patterns he has noticed throughout the state. “It keeps our growers ahead of the game, “said Geddes. “If I see that growers in Litchfield and Milford have noticed something, I know that I have a bit of time to deal with the issue before it gets north to me.”

On tour

After the victorious weigh-off last month at the Deerfield Fair, Geddes brought his beast to the Milford Pumpkin Festival. From Milford, Geddes’ prize-winning pumpkin ventured to New York, where it was on display at the New York Botanical Gardens through Halloween.

As onlookers at the Milford festival jockeyed for the perfect selfie angle, Geddes stood quietly to the side with a subdued smile on his face.  After 10 years, Geddes doesn’t find the sport so silly, and he sees now that the real prize isn’t a winning ribbon, or even a national record. It’s the community of growers, past, present and future, who make up the sport.

“Look across at these growers. We have a grower who has never been able to get a pumpkin to a weigh off. He finally spent some time with the club and got a 400 pound pumpkin to a competition for the first time. He is so excited and ready for next year. Peter Crisp grew a 1600 pounder this year and he is over the moon,” Geddes said. He pointed to George LeClair, a Hillsborough County 4-H member who’s just starting his giant-pumpkin growing career. “He is so excited to grow again next year.”

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Former Marketing & Communication Assistant Producer