August 19, 2012

In the pumpkin patch: Aiming for greatness

Now more than midway through his quest to grow a giant pumpkin, 16-year-old Lucas Dion of Waterboro hand-germinates the plant and drenches his most promising specimens with gallons of water.

By Ray Routhier rrouthier@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series of stories looking at what it takes to grow a giant pumpkin. The stories follow Lucas Dion, 16, in his first attempt to grow a giant pumpkin at his home in Waterboro.

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Lucas Dion hopes his giant pumpkin plant, seen here in his Waterboro backyard, will produce a prizewinner.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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A freshly pollinated flower on Lucas’ pumpkin plant. This is Lucas’ first attempt at growing a giant pumpkin.

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NEXT IN THIS SERIES

LUCAS DION gets ready to harvest his giant pumpkin and hopefully enter a giant pumpkin contest. The logistics of lifting it up and getting it into a pickup truck still need to be worked out.

TO LEARN MORE

IF YOU’RE INTERESTED in growing giant pumpkins, there is lots of detailed information on the website of the Maine Pumpkin Growers Organization, mainepumpkins.com. There is specific information about how to grow the pumpkins and when to perform specific tasks, plus areas for asking other members questions. There is also information on how to join MePGO for an annual fee of $15. Membership includes two newsletters a year and free seeds through the annual seed giveaway.

IF YOU WANT to join but don’t have a computer, write to: Maine Pumpkin Growers Organization, c/o Joe Gaboury, 324 Plains Road, Readfield, ME 04355.

THE MAINE Pumpkin Growers Organization is still accepting sponsors, advertising and interested growers for the Maine Giant Pumpkin Contest in Sanford on Sept. 22. You need to be a member of MePGO to enter. A list of other pumpkin contests can be found on mainepumpkins.com

FOR MORE INFORMATION on the contest, contact Al Berard at berardal@hotmail.com or 324-9348.

WATERBORO - From a distance, Lucas Dion looks like he's standing in a field of lettuce, cabbage or some sort of leaf-bearing crop.

But the high school senior is actually standing in the middle of the one -- yes, one -- giant pumpkin plant that he put in the ground near his home a little more than two months earlier.

It's early August, and the one plant, which started growing inside his home in a bucket, has now spread to cover an entire hillside in his yard measuring 20 to 30 feet in diameter.

And although Lucas had planned to hand-germinate all his pumpkins -- he heard that works better with giants than letting the bees do it -- the bees have indeed done some work for him.

He's already got four pumpkins on the vine (some he hand-germinated; some he didn't), and all are as big as the ones you'd use for Halloween Jack O'Lanterns. One weighs about 40 pounds.

"I guess I didn't expect it to get so big so fast, and we've trimmed a lot of the vines now," said Lucas, 16. "Now I'm looking forward to watching the pumpkins grow. I hear in August, they can grow 30 pounds a day. But it's all water weight. Sometimes, when guys cut the pumpkin off the vine, they get sprayed with water."

Lucas is in his first season of trying to grow a giant pumpkin -- you've seen the thousand-pounders at Maine fairs, haven't you? -- and he's more than halfway there.

This year, he joined the growing number of people who are fascinated enough with the phenomenon of giant pumpkins that they decide to try growing one themselves.

Lucas' interest was piqued last year when his dad, Jim Dion, made his first attempt at a giant and grew a 400-pounder, which he sold to the folks at the Damariscotta Pumpkinfest for about $250. Not to mention the $50 he won at a pumpkin weigh-off in Sanford.

"I figured that would put a lot of gas in the car," said Lucas, who is entering his senior year at Massabesic High School in Waterboro. Certainly, he can use some gas money -- he works at a farm in Wells, and will be taking courses at York County Community College this fall.

Lucas got started with his giant pumpkin effort by picking his dad's brain. His dad, in turn, got interested in giants after picking the brain of Al Berard of Sanford, a founder of the Maine Pumpkin Growers Association and something of a giant pumpkin guru.

The first step was to buy seeds from a giant pumpkin that weighed more than 1,000 pounds. In April, Lucas began growing his plant indoors, where he kept it warm and well lit.

But the family dogs ate his plant (they really did), so Lucas took over care of another plant that his dad had started.

Then came time to put the plant in the ground in late May, followed by feeding it, watering it and watching it grow. Once the vines started to take off, Lucas watched for flowers to open and little pumpkins to start growing.

His father suggested he hand-germinate the plant, something a lot of pumpkin growers do to make sure the pollen doesn't get contaminated.

Basically, you wait until a flower is about to open, then cover it with something, like a cup or bag, to keep insects from getting in. When the flower is ready, you take the pollen stem out and rub it into the "female" part of the plant, where the pumpkin grows.

Lucas did this by covering a flower or two with a Styrofoam cup. But he also had a couple of pumpkins start growing on their own, without hand germinating.

"These just took off by themselves, and I've got one on the main vine that's pretty big," said Lucas. "It's not as much work as I thought."

Lucas' plan for August and September is to keep watering the plant, look out for pests and protect the pumpkins at all costs. When his first pumpkins started growing, he put pieces of plywood underneath them so they wouldn't get too much ground moisture and start rotting.

He's also been burying vines so they'll take root. And he's been plucking off small beginnings of pumpkins, because now that he's got four big ones, he doesn't want the plants' nutrients to be diluted. He wants all the growing power to go into his one or two biggest specimens.

(A couple of days after we visited with Lucas, one of his big pumpkins "went sour" and fell off the vine -- demonstrating how precarious the life of a giant pumpkin is, and how difficult it is to get a giant to survive all the way to harvest time.)

Lucas is hoping that by harvest time in September, he'll at least beat the weight of the giant that his dad grew last year. But he knows there are no guarantees in the world of giants. Wind, weather, pests and a variety of other things can combine to rot or kill a pumpkin before it gets to that coveted giant status.

"I know some people who grew 'em last year, and they only got to 125 pounds. I'd be pretty disappointed if that happened to me," he said.

Lucas would like to enter the fruit of his labors at a giant pumpkin event known as the "Maine Giant Pumpkin Contest" in Sanford on Sept. 22.

But if he gets a giant to grow to 800, 900, 1,000 pounds, how will he get it there?

"I guess just manpower, to get it onto the truck," he said. "Or maybe we can rig something up."

Lucas plays American Legion baseball, and is on his high school wrestling team. So he isn't afraid of a little heavy lifting.

And in this case, he's actually looking forward to it.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

rrouthier@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

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One of the gourds Lucas is hoping will grow to champion proportions.

  


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