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September 30. 2012 11:46PM

Dry summer allowed NH pumpkin growers to wrest control from Mother Nature


Though John Girgus of Derry didn't have the biggest pumpkin at the Deerfield Fair last Thursday, he did have the prettiest and went home with the Howard Dill Award for his efforts. (NANCY BEAN FOSTER PHOTO)

WITH A NEW state record for giant pumpkins set last Thursday at the Deerfield Fair, and the arrival of the world's first one-ton pumpkin at the Topsfield Fair on Friday, 2012 has proven a great year for big pumpkins.

For farmers across the Granite State, the 2012 growing season was a doozy for a variety of crops. The hot spring weather followed by a dip in the mercury was painful for some apple and peach growers, while the lack of rain mid-summer presented another host of problems for farmers. But for those who grow giant pumpkins, the weather was just about perfect.

“When it's dry like it was this year, growers can regulate how much water the pumpkins get,” said George Hamilton of the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. “If a pumpkin gets too much water, it can split and if it's raining a lot, there isn't much you can do to control how much water it gets.”

Growing a pumpkin from seed to giant, and then watching it essentially burst on the vine is heartbreaking, and that's exactly what happened to Hiram Watson of Farmington this year. Watson had one pumpkin in his patch that, based on a series of measurements (called “taping”) was estimated to weigh an impressive 1,600 pounds.

“I went out at noon and it was fine, and again at two o'clock and it was fine, but when I went out at six, it had a split in it,” he said. “It was awful.”

Pumpkin parents

For a lot of growers, the massive squashes are like their children. They nurse and coddle them from spring to fall.

“You've got to be committed,” said retired grower Bill Rodonis of Litchfield. “That two-week vacation in the summer is out. You have to be with it all the time.”

In Jim Beauchemin's pumpkin patch at his home in Goffstown, a plaid blanket rested beside a lone giant pumpkin.

“I cover it at night so it doesn't get cold, and in the daytime, I take the blanket off so that it can soak up the sun,” said Beauchemin.

The estimated 800-pound pumpkin, not a prize-winner by any means, but still a big vegetable (or more accurately, a big fruit) was headed to the Topsfield Fair last Friday, where Beauchemin said it would be “put in the playpen with all the other small pumpkins.”

“We call those the 'kiddie' pumpkins,'” Beauchemin said.

Beauchemin, who owns a landscaping and irrigation company, has been growing giant pumpkins since 1997. He said the trick to getting a winning pumpkin comes down to good, balanced, nutritious soil, favorable weather, lots of attention and great genes.

All in the family

Genetics plays a huge role in the giant pumpkin world. The seeds from world record-setters are bred with seeds from other record setters to create the best possible combination of both.

“It's like horse breeding,” said Beauchemin. “I knew both the mother and the father of this pumpkin.”

And the seeds of winners can become really valuable, said Beauchemin. One sold at auction recently for $800.

But Rodonis, a retired farmer who took up growing giants as a hobby and became a legend in the giant pumpkin community, said paying for seeds is a waste of money.

“I paid a couple of hundred dollars for a seed once and it didn't even germinate,” said Rodonis. “If you need a seed, ask a grower. They'll give you one.”

Rodonis, who has won his share of competitions and even held the world's record (but only for 20 minutes), said growing giant pumpkins is a gentleman's sport that only improves because the people who participate are willing to share their seeds, and their secrets.

“That old boy secrecy went out the window,” said Rodonis, and the result of the openness between competitors is bigger and better pumpkins that continue to astonish even the people who grow them.

Record-setters

On Thursday at the Deerfield Fair, Steve Geddes, a giant pumpkin grower from Boscawen, broke the world record of 1818.5 pounds with a pumpkin that weighed in at 1843.5 pounds. It's by far the biggest pumpkin grown in New Hampshire to date, but Geddes was only able to hold onto that world record title for about 24 hours. On Friday, the pumpkin-growing community was aflutter with news that the world's first one-ton pumpkin might be showing up at the Topsfield Fair — the biggest pumpkin weigh-off site in New England. And they weren't disappointed.

Ron Wallace, a grower from Rhode Island, smashed all pumpkin records with his 2,009-pound squash. And that's the smaller of the two pumpkins Wallace grew this year. He could break his own world record this year.

And though size is the big factor in the giant pumpkin world, sometimes looks count as well. A lot of giant pumpkins are kind of ugly, frankly. They're often a dull orange, cream-colored, or even greenish gray, and some of the biggest ones look like pancakes. But this year, John Girgus of Derry managed to grow a 1,038-pound pumpkin that was nice and round and an incredible shade of orange.

“It was just a fluke,” said Girgus, who has been growing giants for 17 years. “I had no idea what color it was going to be.”

Though Girgus didn't win any prizes for size, he did walk away from the Deerfield Fair with the Howard Dill Award for the prettiest pumpkin.

Pumpkin fun

Folks who want a chance to get up close and personal with giant pumpkins and the people who grow them will have a couple of opportunities in the next few weeks. The Milford Pumpkin Festival, which runs from Oct. 5-7, will feature a giant pumpkin weigh-off at noon on Saturday (for more information visit www.milfordpumpkinfestival.org).

And to see what happens to some of the giant pumpkins grown in New Hampshire after they're weighed in, the Goffstown Pumpkin Regatta will set sail on Oct. 13 and 14.

The regatta was the brainchild of Beauchemin, who hated seeing the giant pumpkins thrown away after so much love was put into them, he said, “so I went to the town fathers and said I wanted to put people in pumpkins and float them down the river.”

Thus, the Pumpkin Regatta was born, and now each year, people carve out the giants donated by growers around the region and set sail on the Piscataquog.

Beauchemin has also created a new sensation using a crane, a kiddie pool full of water, and a giant pumpkin, but folks probably need to see that one for themselves. For more information visit www.goffstownmainstreet.org.

nfoster@newstote.com


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