NEW RICHMOND, WI — It rises up like an island out of a sea of elephant ear-sized green leaves. Less than 90 days ago, you could have held it in the palm of one hand. This, weighing in at more than 1,600-plus pounds, it would take a fork truck to hoist it. Since late April when the seed was first buried, it has been a roller coaster ride of emotions deciding which blossoms to pollinate, then watering, weeding, nurturing the chosen giant day in and day out, battling pests, repelling rodents, praying for storms to pass, dodging hail’s death sentence, burying countless vines, measuring and weighing, measuring and weighing, trying not to let hopes get too high, balancing expectations. Such is the life of someone who grows giant pumpkins.
Lorelee Zywiec has been growing giant pumpkins for nine years. In 2015, her 2,109 pound giant took second place at the Stillwater, Minn., Harvest Festival, one of the most prestigious weigh-ins in the world.
For a grower like Zywiec, navigating the gauntlet of Mother Nature’s unpredictable challenges season after season both hardens your resolve and heightens your expectations.
The growing season for a giant in the Midwest is three to four months. Seeds get planted in late April, pumpkins are chosen for pollination in late June and the giants are harvested in early October. During that time, a pumpkin’s growth typically picks up momentum during the first two months putting on as much as 50 pounds a day during the peak in July and August, depending on the conditions, then gradually starts to slow down as the weather cools and the days shorten.
“When I say it’s Day 63, that’s from the day I pollinated. It starts out like this on Day 1," said Zyweic, mkaing a small circle with her fingers. "By Day 30 you’re probably looking at a 400 pound pumpkin. From Day 25 to maybe Day 55 is your peak growing time. I’ve had up to 50 pounds in a day,” said Zyweic.
Each successful giant establishes the genetic legacy of its seeds increasing their demand in the off season: best-of-harvestfest-2018-premium-giant-pumpkin-seed-collection-10-seeds.
In much the same way the genetic family tree of mares and stallions are managed to produce superstar thoroughbreds, purchasing and trading pumpkin seeds based on their genetic history has spawned an off season industry that can generate income for growers and organizations like the St. Croix Growers Association.
According to Zyweic, a couple things growers pay attention to as their pumpkins mature are cataloping and scar tissue forming around the blossom end.
Cantaloping is an area on the pumpkin where the skin is more fibrous versus smooth usually indicating areas where the giant pumpkin’s husk is stronger and less likely to split or crack.
Growers pay special attention to the blossom end of the pumpkin because it is the weakest part of the pumpkin. A crack or split there usually spells disaster and the end of any chance for that pumpkin to compete. This year Zyweic learned she could cut the actual blossom off and that would help strengthen that part of the pumpkin.
“The first thing you look at every day is the blossom end to make sure you don’t have a split before you work. I cut the blossom off earlier, that’s something new I learned this year, so I’m always going to do that from now on and the pumpkin doesn’t need it. If you cut it off sooner, it will heal and put a nice scar on there and that’s the weakest part of the pumpkin,” explained Zyweic.
The rewards for growing a successful giant are nothing to sneeze at either. New Richmond grower Pete Midthun’s 1st Place monster set a WI state record at 2091 lbs. in 2018 and earned a check for $5,000.
This years Harvest Fest takes place will take place in Stillwater, Minn., the weekend of Oct. 12- 13. Visit the website for more details: www.harvestfeststillwater.com