The Great Pumpkin arrives at last
Don't be fooled by the 1,039-pound beauty on display in John Williams' East Lyme front yard.
As far as he's concerned, his crop was just OK.
"I'm not real happy with my season," he said. "Farmers never are."
The gawking passersby that Williams' giant pumpkin attracts daily are hardly unimpressed as they slow their cars or brake their bikes to marvel. The giant pumpkin, resplendent on an orange tarp-draped trailer and polished with Pledge, is a sight to behold - a freak of nature in the most American way, an outsize harbinger of autumn's best.
Williams is part of an international community of giant pumpkin growers called the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, which authorizes local weigh-ins and provides a resource for growers' clubs to congregate and communicate. Members trade seeds, advice, and a love of really large vegetables.
The GPC also acts as a governing body for its 95 weigh-off sites around the world, mandating what qualifies a giant pumpkin as an official entry, and how to measure, inspect, and photograph it. No blatant holes, for instance, and no serious soft spots are allowed. Founded in 1993, the GPC is home base for giant pumpkin growing enthusiasts the world over, weighing about 2,000 giant pumpkins a year.
Matthew DeBacco, 28, of Rocky Hill, founded the growing group Team Pumpkin, of which Williams is a member, six years ago with fellow grower Bart Toftness of Wallingford. DeBacco also serves as the New England representative of the GPC, and the assistant superintendent of the giant pumpkin contest at the Durham Fair.
Team Pumpkin has about 100 members, largely from New England, but with some hailing from as far as California and Canada.
"We all simply help each other pretty much to grow giant pumpkins," DeBacco said. "That may sound weird when it's a competition. But it's a friendly competition, and we all kind of realize that there is a certain amount of luck involved."
But luck goes only so far.
DeBacco oversees hundreds of soil tests each year, which experienced growers know are a must for patch prepping. Soil samples are sent off to labs at colleges like the University of Connecticut or University of Massachusetts, where they undergo chemical analysis for nutrient levels. DeBacco takes those numbers and converts them into advice for Team Pumpkin members - what fertilizer to use and how much.
And just because they're giant doesn't mean they need super-size sustenance: Too many nutrients could mean splitting of the pumpkin flesh, or even stunted growth. It's a specific species with specific needs. Miracle-Gro, no; fish-and-seaweed fertilizer, yes.
"It's such a tough hobby," said Jason Traylor, a giant pumpkin grower in Preston.
Traylor, 35, a member of Team Pumpkin and also the Southern New England Giant Pumpkin Growers Association, earned his claim to fame four years ago when he stole the show at the Durham Fair with his 1,449.5-pound pumpkin, earning him the state record for three years. His co-workers at Pfizer call him "Pumpkinhead."
Success requires fertilizing the pumpkins, yes - but also shading them with an umbrella under too-intense sun, weeding, providing the right amount of water - about an inch a week, Traylor said, enough that the soil still falls apart when crumbled in a fist - and inspecting daily for bugs, cracks and rot.
Traylor said he spends about a half hour a day on his pumpkins; Williams said he spends about three hours, and up to five on the weekends. They've both been growing the big guys for about six years.
Like Williams, Traylor also had a lackluster pumpkin year: his three giant pumpkins began to split open in late summer, one at 850 pounds and two around the 1,400-pound mark.
But his son Landon, 6, had better luck, and a 12th-place ribbon from August's Woodstock Fair to show for it: Plopped on a platform in front of Preston Veterans' Memorial School, where Landon attends first grade, is his prize-winner - a 618.5-pound beauty, crisp, bright orange, symmetrical and smooth.
Landon, with short-buzzed, cowlicked blond hair and a missing front tooth, proudly perched on the top of his pumpkin, tipped on its side; he can sit just as easily tucked into the indent made by its stem. The pumpkin's flesh is covered in Landon's classmates' names, scrawled inside wobbly black Sharpie handprints.
Traylor insists his son had no help. As for him, there's always next year; he already has seeds lined up, expertly selected for the right traits - big and heavy.
"It's kind of weird to have a hobby like this. But, you know, other people like to work on trucks and shoot guns and stuff," he said. "I like to grow pumpkins."
Williams' red pickup truck parked in his driveway has a Team Pumpkin sticker in its rear window and a state record-setting watermelon in the back - 165 pounds at the Durham Fair. His pumpkin placed sixth at the Woodstock Fair, paling in comparison to his biggest-ever 1,125. He's still trying to get up to the coveted 1,400-pound threshold.
"Competition is really tough these days," he said.
Williams, 56, a fuel handler at Millstone Power Station in Waterford, has the background to support his hobby - he grew up on a farm in West Texas, and grew cotton until he was 30. He started growing giant pumpkins when his mother-in-law gave him some seeds a few years back; ever since, he's been using a friend's extra garden space down the street.
"You have to be really, really dedicated to these things," he said.
Williams germinates the seeds in his greenhouse in April and plants them outside at the end of the month. The growing process lasts all the way to about August. Then comes the harvest, and in a few weeks, he'll carve it into a jack-o'-lantern with a keyhole saw and a wood chisel.
For all the sweat and dirt involved, DeBacco said he attributes giant pumpkin-growing's popularity to the relative instant gratification of it.
"It's one of the few garden items that you can grow, but you can also watch grow," he said. "These pumpkins will easily put on a pound an hour."
During peak growth in August, DeBacco said, in maximum heat and sun, a giant pumpkin can grow up to 40 pounds a day. Check on your pumpkin in the morning, work 9 to 5, come home, and the pumpkin is visibly bigger than when you left it. And if you're persistent, or lucky - or both - you'll get even halfway close to the new GPC world record, set last month at Massachusetts' Topsfield Fair: a whopping 2,009 pounds.
"I think that's what makes it so addicting to do again, and do again, and do again," he said.