Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
RIVERSIDE — Dave Miller’s passion for giant produce started a decade and a half ago, after a bet between himself and his mother-in-law about who could grow the bigger pumpkin.
“I kind of got hooked on it, it’s kind of cool to see it,” Miller said. “The next year I went online, got some seeds from a different pumpkin, grew a 500-pounder, then I really got hooked on it.”
Once bought in, Miller started taking the pumpkins to state competitions, including the Iowa State Fair. Miller said the competitions established a giant pumpkin community, with international online seed auctions and farm tours, bound by an air of friendly competition.
While there’s some money to be made in the giant pumpkin business — Miller said some growers sold the produce for a dollar a pound, with competition winners earning even higher prices at auctions — he’s in it for the love of the game.
“It’s fun to go out and watch it grow, something that starts as a little seed the size of a quarter,” he said. “When we pull in some place with a pumpkin, and all the kids come out and to see their eyes light up … in their book, it’s the biggest pumpkin they’ve ever seen.”
While there’s no secret to growing the giant pumpkins, Miller said they took a lot of hard work. The process involves picking a flower on the vine and hand pollinating it to ensure it has the genes to grow. Then, all the vine ends attached to that gourd are buried as they grow, which the plant converts into new roots. Meanwhile, every new fruit on the vine is picked before it can grow. The result is a 30-foot square of vines, all feeding into one massive pumpkin.
“When it gets about 4-5 weeks in, it’ll really take off,” he said. “And when it takes off it’ll do anywhere from 25-40 pounds a day of weight gain.”
Miller said this year marked a new world record in pumpkin size, at 2700 pounds. Miller’s fell short of that at around 700, though his average is around 1,000.
The competitions don’t mean Miller can’t be picky. He prefers to grow orange pumpkins only, even though they’re less dense than brown and yellow ones, making them less optimal for competitions. He also prefers not to re-use his owns seeds.
As for the use of the pumpkins, Miller takes a buzz saw to them at the end of the competition season and carves them.
“They do make a great jack-o'-lantern,” he said. “They’re no good for eating, they’re strictly grown for competitive reasons. And when they’re all done, you cut them up and throw them in the compost pile.”
Miller encouraged anyone interested to try their own hand at growing a giant pumpkin.
“Once you do it once, and you see how much you can do with a little bit of effort t get a 300 or 400 pound pumpkin, you get hooked on it,” he said. “Then you take it to the next level.”