This spring, thing BIG… think GIANT… think pumpkins.

It is the first day of spring, which means, even if the ground is still covered in snow, it’s time to start dreaming of the garden. We talked with Chad Gilmore, Pemberton’s champion giant pumpkin grower, to get a few tips on how to turn one tiny seed into one giant bounty. Gilmore is a Pemberton potato farmer who has lived in Spud Valley all of his 38 years, and he’s been growing giant pumpkins as a hobby for the past 12 years. The giant pumpkin growing contest has turned into an annual fundraiser for the Pemberton Farmers Institute. Starter plants from Gilmore’s legendary pumpkin seeds (from the thousand-pounder) will be for sale at the Womens’ Institute spring plant sale, and the weigh-off is scheduled for the fall at North Arm Farm.
What are your personal bests in the giant pumpkin growing world? 1049 pounds weighed this year in Nanaimo where we took 3rd place. You need a big pumpkin to win on the Island. The best part of that pumpkin was it was grown from my own seed and was also my first over a thousand pounds. It is also the same seed that was sold at the plant sale, so the plants handed out in the spring of 2010 had some potential. I generally plant another growers’ seeds thinking they are better, never giving my own a chance, so it was very satisfying.

How did you get into it? I saw the “Dills Atlantic Giant” pumpkin packs in the seed rack at the local hardware store that claimed 100-400 pounds. I just thought ‘how cool would that be to have a Jack-O-Lantern that big?’ So I bought a package and planted them in my garden and just let them run wild. I think I grew about 8 pumpkins in the 100-175 pound range but nothing much bigger than that. I had grown that way for about 6 years when my brother in-law sent me a package of seeds someone had given him at the Smokey Lake Weigh Off in Alberta. I had bought a book on growing giant pumpkins and with these better seeds and my new info, I managed to grow a pumpkin 588 pounds. I got wind of a weigh off in North Vancouver that fall and took my pumpkin to Maple Wood Farms where I got 2nd place. While 2nd place was great what I really got there was a new network of like-minded friends that led to better and better seeds and advice and knowledge on growing strategies and soil health.

What’s the fun of it? I guess what set the hook for me was watching the plants vines grow upwards of 12 inches a day or watching your pumpkin grow 30 pounds overnight. If you grow a veggie garden things move slowly and you never really notice growth, but when you come out to your patch in the morning and you can physically see the difference in your pumpkin it really is amazing. I went to a family wedding a few years back right in the middle of peak fruit growth and one  pumpkin grew 122 pounds in the  4 days I was gone.  It really can be that dramatic and it still fascinates me. In the end, though, what has really become the best part for me is spending time with my boys in the patch. They are 6 and 8 so the past few years with them has turned my hobby into more of a family thing for us. From initial spring tilling all the way through to loading the pumpkin and heading to Vancouver Island for a weigh-off in the fall, they are involved in some capacity and are just as amazed as me at how it all comes together. Maybe that’s the thing – it keeps you thinking young. Lastly, it’s trying to grow bigger and bigger every year – the “ what ifs” and the “could have beens” are what you think about all winter and get you out in the patch in the spring.

Do you know where the tradition of giant pumpkin growing got started? The first grower I’ve heard of is William Warnock who grew and weighed a 365 pound pumpkin in his hometown of Goderich Ontario in 1893. He later went to the Paris Worlds Fair in 1900 and weighed the world’s first 400 pound pumpkin. In 1904 at the St. Louis Worlds Fair he broke his own record again, weighing in at 403 pounds. That record stood for 72 years until Bob Ford of Pennsylvania grew a pumpkin that weighed 456 pounds in 1976. Howard Dill of Windsor, Nova Scotia, who had developed his own variety of pumpkin by cross-pollinating a strain of William Warnocks “Goderich Giant” with the “Genuine Mamoth,” won four straight world championships from 1979-82 setting world records in ’81 with 459 pounds and again in ’82 with 493 pounds. In 1986 with the world record being weighed in New Jersey at 671 pounds Howard applied for and received a plant variety  patent on his new seeds and they became Dills Atlantic Giants, the seeds that are responsible for all the giant pumpkins you see today. Though Howard Dill passed on in 2008 he did live to see his seeds continually break world records year after year and is generally considered the founding father of competitive pumpkin growing. On October 9, 2010 Chris Stevens weighed the new World Record in Stillwater Minnesota, grown from a Dill seed, it weighed in at 1810 pounds!

Do you grow other giant things? Presently no. I am considering a giant true green squash for this spring as well as trying my hand at giant watermelons. We tried watermelons last year but we got a late start and nothing came of it. From what I’ve read this winter watermelons have a slow growing plant and need to be started around the middle of March and the melon itself can easily grow over 200 pounds.

Okay, trade secrets time: What does it take to grow a 1000 pounder? For me the number one ingredient is good soil. Without good soil you can have the best seeds and the best weather but your results will be a fraction of what you could have had with good soil. Secondly, attention to the plant is another important factor. I’m not sure how many hours a week I spend in my patch but its probably 6-8 hours minimum a week for 3 plants. Between pruning the plant, vine burying, weeding and watering it does add up. That being said, that’s just  how I do it and I know growers that probably spend twice or triple the hours I do, but I wouldn’t want people to read this and think “oh I don’t have time for that” because you can definitely do it with a lot less. That is exactly what I did the first few years and I had a great time but when I decided I wanted something bigger I knew I had to get a little more into it. This is definitely a hobby where  you get out what you put in.

What are the logistics involved in getting your giant pumpkins to the contest?  For me, my garden is easily accessible to our farm tractors, so it’s a piece of cake.  I  have a buddy who grows in North Vancouver and he has to have a BBQ every year to get his pumpkins out of his backyard. With all the steaks, salads, and beer he has to provide to his volunteers,  it isn’t cheap. We have to get a lifting tarp under his pumpkins and about 8-10 guys grab on and carry them out of his backyard, then alongside his walkway between his house and his neighbor’s fence, through his carport and finally onto a trailer where they get strapped down for the trip to the weigh off. I also know of a guy in California who has to hire a crane to lift them up and over his house into his front yard. Where there’s a will there’s always a way.

Is it possible for someone to grow a giant vegetable in a smaller Vinyl Village backyard?  Or in the community garden? Absolutely. The majority of big pumpkins are grown in little backyards in the suburbs of North America! I try to have 750 square feet per plant but quite a few 1200 pound pumpkins have been grown on less than 400 square feet.

I have enough trouble cutting my squash open with a carving knife. How do you cut these babies open? I have used every thing from a butchers knife to a power saw, but the best thing I used was my neighbors Sawzall. I need to get one of those! The shoulders of these pumpkins are generally too thick to cut out like a regular field pumpkin so I usually just cut a 18″ square hole in the back and clean out the inside and harvest the seeds that way.

Once you’ve saved the precious seeds, what happens to the pumpkin? Jack-o-Lanterns of course!

Would it be possible to carve giant Cinderella carriages with the shells, if one were so inclined? I don’t know about Cinderella carriages but the new thing is turning your pumpkin into a boat. I don’t know where it started but I know they have been doing it for quite a while in Nova Scotia. Its pretty cool, they carve out there pumpkins and paint them up all different colors and then have a race across the harbor in Windsor.

(Is it time for Pemberton, BC to throw down the challenge to Pembroke, ON?)

Does growing giant pumpkins come with a “don’t try this at home kids” warning? If I was inspired to try this myself, what should I do? Where can I get a seed? Not at all, if you’ve got some room everyone should try it.  Google ‘giant pumpkins’ and you’ll be amazed at the info you can find. As for seeds, I’m more then happy to provide seeds to anyone who wants some. I’ve got thousands, literally, and since my prized seeds take up a quarter of our fridge as well as various drawers stuffed full of bubble packs filled with seeds from my own and others pumpkins, I’m sure if you called my wife she would give you as many as you want!

One Response to “This spring, thing BIG… think GIANT… think pumpkins.”
Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Pemberton writer and frequent Mountain Life contributer Lisa Richardson recently hooked up with farmer Chad Gilmore to talk about the ins and outs of growing super enormous pumpkins. Did you know a giant pumpkin can gain 30 pounds in one day, and the vines can grow a foot a day? check it out here. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: