Backyard Giants: When Pumpkins Become a Giant Obsession

Several years ago I went to see a movie called “American Pimp“. And yes, that is exactly what it was about. I had an odd feeling all the way through the movie that was hard to explain. I was fascinated because while I knew that such an underground world existed, I didn’t really know that that world existed. I thought somehow that the “pimp” world was really just a fabrication by the movie industry and to find out that this was not the case was definitely… disconcerting.

I had exactly the same feeling while I was reading “Backyard Giants” by Susan Warren. The subtitle for this book is “The Passionate, Heartbreaking and Glorious Quest to Grow The Biggest Pumpkin Ever”. At 1,500+ pounds, the phrase Biggest Pumpkin Ever just does not seem big enough.

I want to say first of all, I did enjoy the book. As unsettling as I found the material to be, the book was well written and well-paced. I think that in the hands of a less capable writer, the subject matter could have quickly turned dry or tabloid-ish. But that is not the case. Ms. Warren presents a lot of information in a fun to read story.

But the subject matter is a whole other world of gardening that I knew existed but never really knew existed. Imagine spending hundreds, even thousands of dollars on your garden (okay, so that is not so hard to imagine) but with the sole intent of growing a pumpkin near the size of a small car. Something that a pumpkin isn’t suppose to naturally do. A single pumpkin vine grown in an attempt to grow a giant pumpkin will not only suck down hundreds of dollars in fertilizers and other chemicals but will need as much coddling and man hours as the rest of your garden combined. You will not eat it. You will not be able to decorate with it. It may not even make it through to the weigh-off at the end of the season… Disease, animals and even just its own grotesque weight could kill a giant pumpkin without warning.

To me, the world of giant pumpkin growing is fascinating and yet frightening. Part of me says that it is not any different than my tomatoes or my husband’s uncle daylilies (he grows a few hundred varieties) but somehow what giant pumpkin growers do seems, well, wrong. All that time, money and effort all to grossly abuse the limits of what Mother Nature and a squash plant never intended? Even as a gardener, I can’t understand it. But I suppose it is their obsession and they are welcome to it.

I do recommend reading the book. It is an intriguing (albeit slightly creepy) look at a world most of us don’t even consider in our daily puttering in the garden. Me personally, if I could get a pumpkin to Jack-o-Lantern size, I would be thrilled. But I do suppose that a giant pumpkin would give the passers-by something else to gawk at besides the Shrub Monster.

11 thoughts on “Backyard Giants: When Pumpkins Become a Giant Obsession
  1. Dorothy on

    Ejoyed your insightful review of the book and the understanding that many gardeners are and do become overly zealous when it comes to their gardens. You MUST read “Diary of a Wannabe Gardener.” It is a fictional creatively humorous account of a gardener’s life over the course of a year. Preview it at http://www.bbotw.com You will appreciate the author’s writing style and vivid account of the gardening experience. Let me know what you think about the book.

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  2. When I was reading the book I kept thinking about other instances of plant obsession; the Dutch Tulip Mania of the 1600′s, Victorian Orchid and Plant Hunters and such and in retrospect these Pumpkin Growers seem kind of tame. I think with our relatively wealthy society people are free to take their hobbies to great extremes and all sorts of economically useless agriculture is one facet of this. Horrible, tasteless two-pound tomatoes come to mind and the toxic waste dump that is a “perfect” lawn come to mind.

    I caught myself judging a bit when vast sums of money were being thrown into growing giants, but my garden is a huge vanity project that only makes sense economically when the retail value of the harvest approaches the magic number matching the School Taxes on the property. It often does, but I never figure my labor into the equation.

    The thing I didn’t realize until Susan cleared it up in an email was that most of these giant pumpkins, if grown organically or with conventional amounts of pesticides and fungicides (of course any amount of this is verboten around my garden) are edible. I can see growing one of the smaller 500 lb varieties and canning it for pie or cutting it into sections and sharing it with my family and neighbors. I harvested about 200 lbs of Winter Squash last year despite cucumber beetles, vine borers and squash bugs so a giant pumpkin isn’t too crazy.

    I’m considering giving up a corner of the back of the lot to growing one such pumpkin next year as an experiment, there’s a shed close by and if I rig up a rain barrel to it I should be able to capture enough water for it and the compost heaps are close at hand.

    All in all it was an entertaining read, obviously there’s more going on than just Giant Pumpkins, but then Moby Dick wasn’t just a whale.

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  3. Hanna on

    Dorothy – I will have to check that book out. Thanks!

    steven – I get what you are saying with the edible part, but the fact is that it seems like they didn’t eat them. They tossed them down hills, chopped them up in frustration and just used them to contribute to next year’s attempt. Even the winners just get to be celebrity monster jack-o’-lanterns for Martha and the gang.

    Susan emailed me and compared it to competitive sports, which I don’t understand either. But I think that has more to do with the male/female psyche than anything else.

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  4. Vicki on

    My pumpkins may not weigh 3/4 of a ton (what the hell does one do with a 1500-pound pumpkin?), but mine are a green-gray and perfect for pie and decorating. Once October gets here, it’s time for pie (sorry, punkins).

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  5. I’m also reading the book but at a slower pace than you and Steven. It’s a good book, and like Steven, I’m thinking in the back of my mind as I read it about other obsessions of gardening, like orchids, roses, bonsai,tomatoes, dahlias, daylilies, you name it. I think gardeners can get ‘hooked’ by a specific plant or genus of plants and become singularly focused and obssessed with growing it either to perfection or to some extreme. So far, it hasn’t happened to me, (at least I don’t recognize it, if it has) but I suppose it is a risk we all take.

    Carol at May Dreams Gardens

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  6. When I lived on a farm I had some very rich soil around 3 feet deep. I grew some great veggies and had a strawberry bed and asperragus patch. I would go out in the morning with a knife and spoon and eat some Minnisota Midgets. But my my prise was the pumpkins. I grew “normal” pumpkins which would be considered large. My Atlantic Giants, without any manipulating, grew to around 700 pounds. At work I asked my Boss if I could borrow a tree cart. When I told him it was to move pumpkins, he had to see for himself. A local veggie stand would buy one each year for display. As a side note our potbellied pigs loved to help dipose of them after Halloween.

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  7. Where would Cinderella be without her pumpkin coach? I think I might have to read the book although growing the biggest is interesting to me, it is not my cup of tea.

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  8. Hey Hanna,

    It’s probably too late for you to catch this since it’s already after 6 at your place, but maybe another viewing will show up sometime:

    Lords of the Gourd: The Pursuit of Excellence
    9:00 PM EST- PBS
    (Check local listings) Size does matter. This latest entry in the “Pursuit of Excellence” series of quirky documentaries focuses on gardeners whose goal is to raise the world’s biggest pumpkin. The drama is high as Joe Pukos rolls his entry into the back of his truck for the trek to the big weigh-off in Cooperstown, N.Y. He’s confident his sasquatch of a squash will take the prize … until the rumors surface that someone else has an even more smashing pumpkin.

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  9. I’ve not read this book, but I watched Lord of the Gourd on PBS when I was in the midst of struggling with my own pumpkin. I never did get our pumpkin vine to make a pumpkin, what a pain in the rump that thing was. (I eventually ran over it with the lawnmower so it would stop taunting me. LOL)

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  10. I keep trying to grow a really big one, and never quite make it. I console myself that the smaller ones are more tasty! Please have a look and if you feel like contributing to my ‘squashblog’ please do. xx Matron

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  11. Saw an article on msn the other day. Half Moon Bay in N. California had their pumkin festival. The largest pumpkin was over 1,500 pounds. Here’s the direct link to the fest: http://www.miramarevents.com/pumpkinfest/ I’m still sticking to a 10 pounder and a carving knife!

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