Illinois grows a lot of pumpkins. Some feed giants on them.
Heap’s Giant Pumpkin Farm in Minooka held a statewide competition to honor the tallest giant on September 25. The event was sponsored by the Illinois Giant Pumpkin Growers Association.
Last year, Henry Bartimus of Dewitt harvested the largest pumpkin, weighing 1,673 pounds. But even the giant Bartimus wasn’t close to the Illinois squash record of 2,145 pounds.
âIt’s an addicting hobby,â Bartimus told FarmWeek. âIf you grow them for a few years, then you’re probably hooked for life. When you see a pumpkin put on 2 pounds in an hour, it is just amazing. Many will gain 40 to 50 pounds each day for three weeks and then begin to decrease.
The pumpkin enthusiast said growers from all walks of life embark on the cultivation of a giant when photos or stories spark their interest. âMany just have a love of pumpkins,â he said.
Bartimus estimated that around seven producers regularly compete for the state crown. He described the Giant Pumpkin Growers Association as open to anyone in Illinois who brings a giant to the weigh-in. For information, visit igpga.com or follow the group on Facebook.
To offer prizes to the bigger pumpkins, the club auctions giant pumpkin seeds from December through February. Many auctions take place online at bigpumpkins.com.
âA lot of people are very generous and can pay $ 1,000 for a seed, but you can buy seeds with the potential to grow 2,000 pound pumpkins for $ 35 to $ 100,â Bartimus said. âSeeds that have already grown to 2,000 pounds and more are called proven seeds and can sell for between $ 100 and $ 350, or even $ 600. Some groups sell seeds year round, usually between $ 35 and $ 70.
âIf you look at the genetics of the seed, you might be able to ask the grower and he can give you seeds if you pay the shipping cost,â he added.
Growing a Colossus requires a lot of TLC.
Seeds are usually started indoors around April 8 before being placed outdoors in huts with heaters and fans. Many producers use underground heating cables, Bartimus said.
âWe try to pollinate our plants from June 15 to July 1. At this point they have reached 30 feet wide and 18 feet long,â he explained. Plants are pruned to limit their size. When the pumpkin is 30 days old, the grower stops all growth of the vine, so all of the plant’s energy goes into the pumpkin.
If it isn’t raining, a grower will provide 50 to 120 gallons of water per day for every 1,000 square feet of plant. Only one pumpkin is grown on each plant. Growers will work one to eight hours a day on a single plant, according to Bartimus.
One of the most important factors is soil testing. The best growers add nutrients throughout the growing season. Bartimus fertilizes his plants daily, adding as little as a single teaspoon. It uses a lot of algae and humic acid.
The main pests are squash vine borers, cucumber beetles and squash bugs. Powdery mildew can be a problem. âYou almost have to work on it every day if a problem starts out like disease or rot,â he said. âEvery minute counts to master it. “
Giant pumpkins don’t like to be too hot or too cold, preferring temperatures between 75 and 80 degrees. âMany growers use some type of shade cloth or automatic misting systems to cool the plant with multiple fans,â the grower said. âExcessive rains slows growth due to the low oxygen level in the soil, and the vines can rot because of this as well. Much of the United States has had trouble growing giants this year. “
Pampered pumpkins can be featured in trade shows, carved by artists, dropped from cranes at fun events, feed zoo animals, or just sit in the gardens of their proud growers.
Bartimus advised interested growers not to be shy and bring pumpkins of all sizes to weigh. âWe don’t laugh at you or we don’t laugh at you. It’s a great place to meet producers and ask questions, âsaid the veteran producer. “Sometimes getting a pumpkin of any size to survive until the end of a season can be a challenge, and the best growers know it.”
When asked if growing giant pumpkins was a hobby, an advocation, or a passion, Bartimus replied, âAll of them. For me and many other producers this is more of a challenge against yourself than against the competition, but yes we all love to win.
This story was released as part of a cooperative project between the Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.