Giant pumpkins and those who grow them
Giant pumpkin growing is as much about collaboration and community as it is about competition.
Caroline Camparmo fell to her knees, crying, in her father’s pumpkin patch in Langley.
Her brother’s goat had eaten a portion of the giant Atlantic pumpkin she spent months caring for that season.
After losing a portion of its outer wall to the goat attack, the pumpkin began to rot on the vine. And though Camparmo sat in the patch next to the mutilated gourd, scrubbing at the wound with a bleach mixture and an old toothbrush, nothing could be done to save it.
The first-time grower had help in her efforts to save the fruit. Her father, who grew giant pumpkins, rallied the community behind her.
“My dad called his pumpkin buddies down in the States,” Camparmo remembered, years later. “They all had a big talk about how to help us help the pumpkin—and see if we could save it.”
They could not.
“That was the end of the pumpkin,” Camparmo said. “It was very emotional.”
Though her giant pumpkin couldn’t be rescued and was raced into competition before it could finish growing, Camparmo knows that this is part of the pumpkin world. It is that rush of emotion (even the devastation of losing a good gourd), connection, and the satisfaction of growing something that draws people to the sport
Giant pumpkin-growing, an endeavour that has sprouted around the world, is about the community that forms around the sport and collaborating to push its boundaries as much as it is about the individual competition for the largest fruit.
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It takes a village
Camparmo is not a seasoned pumpkin grower herself. 2016—the year she lost her gourd to her brother’s goat—was her last season. But her love for the sport and the community surrounding it is rooted in her childhood.
“My dad started growing giant pumpkins before I was born, so they’ve just always been a part of my life,” she said. Somewhere there are baby photos of her tucked inside a hollowed-out pumpkin, she said.
Camparmo’s involvement in the competitions also started early. She helped keep score in her youth by writing the weights of each pumpkin on the scoreboard. Now an adult, she is an MC and organizer who helps run BC’s only registered giant pumpkin weigh-off event at Krause Berry Farms in Langley.
Competing and collaborating
After several seasons out of the pumpkin patch, Camparmo returned to the world of huge vegetables because of the community that forms around it.
Extreme gardening is the somewhat commonly-used umbrella term for the sport, which includes all manner of giant vegetable competitions— from the biggest tomato to the heaviest squash to the longest cucumber.
Though winners are crowned at each event, the practice is far more collaborative than it is competitive, Camparmo said.
“I do think at the end of the day, it’s about showing up and having fun with your friends, seeing what you can bring to the competition, and having a good time.”
When a grower loses a pumpkin, it’s devastating.
“If someone’s fruit does go down, it’s always heartbreaking for everyone,” Camparmo explained. “That’s part of the emotional thing—if you get a crack, or if it blows up on you because it gained too much weight too fast.”
Defeats are shared by the community, and triumphs tend to be celebrated and shared as well.
“It’s jokingly competitive,” Camparmo said. “It’s a lot more collaborative. It’s a lot more about progressing the sport forward and pushing the boundaries.”
(She has never heard of growers sabotaging one another, and only heard brief rumours about pumpkin-focused espionage.)
It takes a lot of work to grow a decent-sized giant pumpkin. Camparmo weeds, waters, controls pests, trains the vines on her pumpkin plant to grow in a specific way and, once the pumpkin begins to grow, manages its temperature.
But there is a level of scientific rigour some growers pursue beyond what Camparmo and her family usually work with.
There are websites dedicated to seed genealogy where growers can select genetics for their fruit based on the pumpkin that produced the seeds. Some growers use climate-controlled greenhouses to manage gas levels and test their plants and soil to determine perfect pH levels.
“Those are the people who are growing those massive, massive fruits and just pushing the edge of the sport,” Camparmo explained. “I’ve never done that and my father never has. We just take a wild guess and hope it works.”
Camparmo and her family tend to seek satisfaction and joy in the patch over record-smashing success. And the value she places on collaboration is shared by some of the most competitive big-pumpkin growers.
One grower, who wins competitions and cultivates some of the heaviest pumpkins in the country, is also a big believer in collaboration with other farmers—though he acts on it in a different way.
The boundaries of the sport
Dave Chan struggled to strap his most recent prize squash—a giant pumpkin bound for a weigh-off in Tualatin, a village outside Portland—to the flatbed trailer that would take it there.
“It’s too round,” he said shortly before leaving for the competition. “I have one, two, three, four… we’ve got eight straps on it now.”
The dairy farmers across the road, friends of Chan’s, came over to help hoist his mega pumpkin into position with their tractor. “It becomes a real logistics thing,” Chan explained.
That pumpkin would go on to win the Tualatin weigh-off, weighing in at 1,728.5 pounds. Chan’s slightly smaller pumpkin also won the Krause Berry Farm’s weigh-off in Langley several weeks ago. (It was 1,676 pounds.)
The largest pumpkin Chan has ever grown was a 1,911-pound monster last year. It was the third-largest pumpkin in Canada that season. Chan’s next personal goal is 2,000 pounds— a milestone that might have broken the national record a few years ago.
The current world record for the largest giant Atlantic pumpkin ever grown is 2,702 pounds. The Canadian record is 2,500 and was set in Saskatchewan this year.
Chan grew his first giant pumpkin exactly 40 years ago with seeds from Howard Dill, one of the modern fathers of the giant Atlantic. That season, he grew a pumpkin that weighed in at half the world record weight in his Vancouver backyard. At that time, the world record was 535 pounds.
You don’t need a huge parcel of land to grow huge pumpkins. Chan’s current pumpkin patch is on two-thirds of an acre in Richmond that he moved to 15 years ago.
That record has been surpassed several times in the four decades since it was set as pumpkin-growers like Chan sought better genetics and techniques to cultivate bigger and bigger fruits. Growers frequently share both resources, often online, and the seeds that will grow the next record breakers.
Chan sends the seeds from his best pumpkins to growers who ask for them, just like he once got his first Giant Atlantic seeds.
His methods are increasingly meticulous, and they too are shared in detail online.
“I keep track of everything,” he said.
He carefully monitors nutrition, sunlight, soil acidity, and temperature. Chan heats his garden in the early spring with electric cables in the soil and uses layers of greenhouses to achieve the perfect climate for his fruits.
Chan writes a blog on a website for growers from around the world who register with the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth (the organization that regulates giant vegetable competitions). He is one of many.
“You’ll get people from all over the world there,” he said, “And every blog includes the email address. The idea is to be able to contact other growers and learn from them if they post something that you’re interested in.”
Pumpkin bloggers list their general locations when they post. This season, the site had users writing from Germany, Russia, New Zealand, China, Austria, the United States, and Canada, among others.
“I have lots of pumpkin friends around the world that I’ve never seen,” Chan said.
The international giant pumpkin-growing community shares stories and techniques. It is a place where growers can gather to celebrate triumphs, report tragedies, and pass on knowledge (and seeds) to one another.
Giant pumpkin-growing is a big deal and the community that forms around it—both local and international—has a lasting impact on its members.
Though it has been several years since she has grown a pumpkin herself, Camparmo knows the competitions are about more than the giant pumpkins themselves. They are also about the people who grow them.
“I love coming down and going to the playoffs and meeting up with all the people… and seeing how their season went and talking about what vegetables are doing this year,” she said. “It’s a really good community.”
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