People who grow giant vegetables might be a little odd — and Prince Edward Island pumpkin growing club president Gordon Aten is no exception.
He’s been growing colossal squashes and pumpkins for almost 30 years, and he says there’s something competitive and addictive about the practice.
“It’s a sport. Some people are into horse racing or hockey. Growing giant pumpkins and squashes is a sport you do in your garden,” he said, laughing. “I guess you could say we’re a bit strange.”
Aten was introduced to giant pumpkin growing by his former neighbour, the late Jim Murphy. Murphy began hosting his annual giant pumpkin weigh-off in 1993 and hired Aten as a pumpkin porter — the person whose job it is to safely get the supersized pumpkin on the scales.
“It took six of us to lift the thing. The porters developed sore backs in the following years, so we built an A-frame and a chain to lift the pumpkin onto the scale.”
That weigh-off ignited a curiosity, and Aten grew his first behemoth in 1994.
“I started growing, but I accidentally got a hold of a giant squash seed instead. A big squash is nice, but the pumpkins are king.”
It took Aten a few years before he grew his first prize-winner, which earned him a blue ribbon and some cash, he said.
“But the bragging rights are the real prize. It’s something special to grow the champ.”
Aten has grown another giant squash this year, and he’s been calling it Squiddy.
“I know some people like to be clever when naming, but I just look at them and think, ‘Hmm, that looks like a Sally or a Moe.’ Squiddy survived Hurricane Fiona, so he should make it to this year’s weigh-off,” he said.
Nova Scotia growers and Howard Dill
You can’t write an article about Atlantic Canadian pumpkin growers without mentioning Howard Dill, the late great pumpkin king of Nova Scotia. Dill was a farmer and part-time, self-taught plant geneticist. He patented the Atlantic Giant seeds in 1979, became a four-time world champion giant pumpkin grower, appeared on The Martha Stewart Show, and was ultimately honoured with a massive statue of himself in Windsor, Nova Scotia.
Almost all serious growers use his Atlantic Giant seeds today.
His eldest son, Danny Dill, manages the farm and has been in the giant pumpkin game for a long time.
“I honestly couldn’t tell you how many we grow. We get orders — some people want a 200-lb. giant pumpkin for a display, and others need a 500-lb. pumpkin for a charity event. We grow plenty of giant pumpkins for the seeds too.”
Like most giant pumpkin growers, the Dills grow their lumpy giants outdoors. Dill says most giant pumpkin growers keep things organic.
“We put a lot of care into the soil; we pay attention to climate change and how it’s altered the seasons. Most growers aren’t interested in a giant pumpkin full of pesticides.”
There are rumours and myths surrounding giant pumpkin growing
The one Dill hears the most often? The one he calls “the milk thing.”
“My dad heard that all the time. People used to ask if he fed the giant pumpkins milk instead of water. He got so sick of being asked that he finally tried it out. Of course, it didn’t work.”
Dill’s busy with the farm these days but he’s not planning on letting the legacy go.
“One of these days, I’m going to get a little stake of land, focus my attention on five or six plants. We grew some 700- and 800-lb. beauties on the farm without much effort. Growing a champ is always in the back of my mind.”
The Dill family recently held their annual Great Howard Dill Pumpkin Classic. This year’s winner, Fred Ansems, grew a colossal pumpkin that weighed in at 1,556 pounds.
“It was pretty impressive to see.”
Growing pumpkins in Newfoundland’s rocky soil
The giant pumpkin growers of Newfoundland are harder to find. The soil’s rockier, the wind more intense, but Leslee Lake of Clarenville says growing giant pumpkins on the Rock is not as hard as people think.
“People think growing vegetables in Newfoundland is tough, but I grow bonsai trees, giant sunflowers, grapes, corn, and of course, I’m growing Gourdie.”
Gourdie (short for “Gourdzilla”) is Lake’s giant pumpkin, a massive orb weighing around 850 pounds.
“I put a lot of work into Gourdie. They are big eaters, so you need tons of compost,” he said. “I put him outside in June, covered him was plastic; then on July 24, I hand-pollinated him, picked the right flower. Giant pumpkins are an exciting thing to grow because of their speed. I’d go to work before the sunrise, get home in the evening, and Gordie had grown 18 inches.”
Gourdie seems to have his personality, and Lake is quite attached.
“Yeah, I’m a little ridiculous about Gourdie. This summer, I covered Gourdie with one of my daughter’s Winnie the Pooh blankets to keep him from getting a sunburn, but when I looked out the window, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s just not Gourdie’s style,’ so I went and bought him a blanket with a big skull on it. He’s rock and roll, you know?”
Lake grew up on an organic farm and is passionate about teaching people to grow things.
“I planted some seeds and had plants growing, then I brought them to work, and now my co-workers are in growing competition with their pumpkins. I want to get more people interested in gardening.”
His hopes for Gourdie?
“I don’t know if it’ll happen, but I’d love to get a flatbed truck, hoist Gourdie up there, decorate it with some scarecrows and take him to elementary schools. It’d be amazing to get kids excited about growing food — and if a giant pumpkin is their entry point, then awesome.”
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