The winner of the 2014 Circleville Pumpkin Show’s Giant Pumpkin Weigh-In wasn’t just any squash. It was a 1,964-pound beauty that easily could have been carved into a real-life version of Cinderella’s carriage. Optometrist Bob Liggett and his wife, Jo, had babied the gourd and the ground it grew on since the previous year’s contest, but it took more than a little tender love and care to grow one with gargantuan girth.
So, what exactly does it take to harvest a heavyweight champion? Last summer, we headed to Circleville to get the lowdown from Liggett, who was busy babying four prize-worthy specimens, two of which went on to take second and third places in the 2015 contest at 1,633 and 1,630 pounds, respectively.
Bob Liggett’s Tips For Prepping A Portly Pumpkin
Good lineage matters. The seeds from a giant pumpkin are in high demand with serious buyers since the progeny of a former champion has grand potential. They can sell for up to $40 each. “Normally, we give ours to growing groups to raise money for prizes,” says Liggett.
Prep the patch. Soon after the last pumpkin is picked in the fall, it’s already time to start thinking about the next year’s crop. In October, Liggett rotates the patch to help reduce the build-up of soil diseases. He then treats the soil with gypsum, a calcium additive that breaks down over the winter to help make the walls of the future pumpkins stronger. Then he covers the area with manure. “Alpaca is my favorite,” he says. “If I can’t get that, then cow manure is my second choice.”
Test the soil. “In the fall, we look closely at the micronutrients and bring everything up to a high level,” says Liggett. “It takes about two to three days to get the patch ready by adding the various amendments, including nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, calcium, boron, and sulfur, all of which are needed for giant pumpkin growing.”
Replenish beneficial organisms. Most of the world’s plants have a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi, which attach to roots and increase the delivery of nutrients to the host. When the soil is disturbed it reduces the fungal population, but when added back to the soil, pumpkins get 30% to 40% more nutrients. “That’s one of the big changes we’ve seen [in pumpkin growth],” says Liggett. Pumpkins were averaging 500 pounds, but now they are almost 2,000.”
Germinate inside. The growing season starts at the end of April or early May. Liggett turned an extra room in the house into a germination chamber, where he adds pumpkin seeds to potting soil and warms the container to a steady 85°. After about three days, the seeds sprout and are placed under four-foot-high shop lights with both grow and cool white lights. At this time, Liggett adds a starter fertilizer (10-51-10 has a high phosphorus content to help with rooting) and RootShield, which prevents early root rot. It takes a week from the time the seeds go into the potting soil until it is ready to head outside into the patch.
Take it outside. By the first part of May, it’s time to move the seeds into the garden. Because it can still be cold at the beginning of the growing season, Liggett uses heat tape set to 70° to keep the plant warm. “We try to warm the soil and make a little hut over the top with plastic, like a mini greenhouse,” he says.
Protect it. When the pumpkin is soccer ball size, Liggett builds a hut over it with 14-foot pieces of PVC and tarp to shield it from the sun. Liggett also erects a tall snow fence to keep out the deer and other hungry critters.
Water frequently. Give it water, water, and more water. Keeping the roots hydrated is important. “We use an inch of water a week, which is supplied through a drip-line system,” says Liggett, who also adds other balanced fertilizers through the system.
Feed it. “During the season, we feed the plants a fish emulsion every week,” says Liggett. He picks up a one-gallon jug at the local garden store.
Kill the bugs. Liggett uses garlic spray, liquid Sevin spray, and variety of other garden insecticides to keep the bugs away. Should an insect harm the shell of the pumpkin, he sprays it with 6% hydrogen peroxide and dusts it with powered sulfur and Captan, a fungicide that helps the plant heal.
Trim: On the weekend, Liggett spends an hour or two trimming vines that aren’t producing. It’s necessary to direct all the energy to the fruit.
Watch it grow. A ten-day growing spurt starts in mid-July, which can add 400 pounds to the pumpkin, although growth rates vary among pumpkins due to many factors, such as genetics, soil, and weather conditions.
Light it up. When the daylight hours begin to shorten in early fall, Liggett uses 1,000-watt grow lights on a timer set for 4am.
Harvest it: On the eve of the weigh-in at the Circleville Pumpkin Show in October, the Liggetts throw a party and serve pumpkin burgers. Guests can stop by and size up the giant pumpkin and guess its weight. Then, the stem is severed and the giant is loaded on a truck to be transported to weigh-in the next day.
Don’t eat a giant pumpkin: Bigger isn’t better when it comes to taste. In fact, the growing strategies render the pumpkin absolutely inedible, Liggett says. “One of the growers did everything organically,” he adds. “After the contest, he cooked everything down and made a squash pie—nobody wanted seconds.”