Growing a great pumpkin
Gardener cultivates giant squash as hobby
CHARLTON The pumpkin in Frank Valenza’s front yard makes most jack-o’-lanterns look like navel oranges in comparison. Weighing in at 1,320.8 pounds, it’s between 14 and 15 feet in circumference and large enough to serve as a seat for three tired trick-or-treaters.
Valenza’s been growing supersized pumpkins for 11 years, just for fun. This is the first year he’s been able to produce one that passed the thousand-pound mark.
The process started back in April, when he planted some special seeds. “The seed I used was the father seed of the world record [pumpkin] from last year,” he said. “Breeding pumpkins is like breeding horses. You have to know the history of the seed.”
Valenza’s 3,000-square-foot garden was divided into quarters. In each, he grew just one pumpkin plant. Each seedling was planted atop a four-foot-square heating coil that was buried eight inches in the ground. “You plug it in and it keeps the soil warm, and the warm soil will encourage more root growth early in the season,” he said.
To encourage further root growth, Valenza buried the vines as they grew. More roots then sprouted from nodules near the leaves. “The more roots you get growing, the more nutrients it will pull out of the ground,” he explained.
Once the plants flowered, Valenza hand-pollinated one flower on each vine and carefully watched over each of his four pumpkins as they grew.
This year, one ballooned to 700 pounds, then split right near the stem. That can happen sometimes if the pumpkin gets too much water, he said.
Usually, if the weather’s been dry, he’ll give each pumpkin 50 to 100 gallons of water per day, by way of an irrigation system.
“Pumpkins can put on between 20 and 40, sometimes 50 pounds per day at the peak growing time,” he noted.
Valenza’s smallest pumpkin this year grew to a meager 500 pounds. The second largest of his crop, which took fourth place at the Cooperstown PumpkinFest, weighed in at a healthy 1,080 pounds.
People often wonder where Valenza finds a scale sturdy enough to weigh such ample produce. But he doesn’t use a scale at all. “There’s a chart that growers go by. We take three measurements to get the estimated weight,” Valenza explained.
Moving the massive pumpkins is much trickier than figuring out their weight. Valenza uses a special harness and a neighbor’s excavator for that job.
The 1,320-plus-pounder in Valenza’s front yard made a trip to a weigh-off in Clarence, where it won a prize, but Valenza won’t reveal what that prize was. “I don’t do it for the prize. I do it for the fun,” he explained.
Now the award-winning pumpkin sits in the front yard for passersby to admire. It won’t be there much longer though, Valenza said. Soon he’ll scoop out the seeds to save, and relegate the flesh to the compost.
In April, he’ll plant those seeds in hopes of growing an even grander pumpkin. “I just want to beat the New York state record, and after that, I want to beat the world record,” he said.