The Pumpkin King

Science and Technology

Sep 13, 2001 at 2:06 pm

Forget finding a cure for AIDS, arteriosclerosis or impotence. The world of science, research and technology is addressing the world of competitive pumpkin growing, and Dave Stelts of Leetonia, Ohio, is leading the way.

In his spare time, in every spare second, Stelts tends to the gigantic pumpkins that grow in his back yard. Day after day he monitors their growth and development, taking tissue samples to assess their health and complicated measurements to estimate their weight. He waters and fertilizes them diligently, following a strict round-the-clock regime and using scientific techniques to provide ideal growing conditions.

Last year Stelts grew a pumpkin that weighed in at a staggering 1,140 pounds and had a girth of more than 190 inches, claiming a new world record for the largest pumpkin.

"Right now, I've got six," says the 42-year-old, taking a short break from his backyard and this year's crop. "I lost half of them. I had 12."

Some have already succumbed to disease, he says, and others just didn't want to grow.

By taking three different measurements, Stelts says he can estimate the weight of his remaining pumpkins to within about 10 pounds.

"I don't know if I'll get another record, but I've got some good growers," he says. "They're all growing between 20 and 30 pounds a day."

That kind of furious growth doesn't happen by accident. Stelts spends upwards of 40 hours each week with his pumpkins. Right now they're growing so fast you can almost see them swelling, hear them expanding, creaking with the effort. In unguarded conversation, he'll sometimes refer to one of his gigantic pumpkins as "my baby."

He's hoping that, come October, one of his six remaining pumpkins will have edged out ahead of the others in size, weight and condition. Stelts will carefully load this superlative specimen into the back of his truck, transport it to Canfield, 75 miles south of Cleveland, and enter it in the Ohio Valley Giant Pumpkin Growers annual pumpkin weigh-off.

There on Oct. 6 competitive vegetable growers from across the country will arrive with their monster squash, pumpkins, tomatoes and watermelons in tow, ready to compete in the weigh-off. The grower of the heaviest pumpkin will be awarded a grand prize of $1,500.

By day, Stelts is a manager at a local home improvements store, but by night and on weekends he is a competitive pumpkin grower. He is also a self-taught scientist and an amateur geneticist. Like most competitive growers, Stelts exclusively plants and grows the Atlantic giant pumpkin variety, which grows quickly, consistently exceeding 500 pounds or more when provided with favorable growing conditions.

"Last week, my best pumpkin put on 203 pounds," Stelts says proudly. "I try to keep them at a nice balance, so I periodically send out tissue samples."

By taking tissue and soil samples and sending them to California, Stelts simultaneously monitors the health of his pumpkins and the growing conditions in his back yard, delicately fine-tuning the mineral, nutrient and pH levels of the soil to maximize his growth rates.

"I take pride in big orange ones," he says. "A lot of guys said, 'Oh, they're out. You'll never grow a record with the big orange ones.' I said, 'OK.' "

Stelts is one of roughly 10,000 competitive pumpkin growers worldwide; there are societies of pumpkin growers springing up in the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Australia and several other countries. He spends the off-season in regular contact with between 100 and 200 other growers, exchanging useful growing tips, occasionally giving seminars and trading seeds.

Well-known among other growers, Stelts can sell his pumpkin seeds for between $250 and $275 each.

The year begins just before Thanksgiving for Stelts, before the ground gets too hard to work with. First he takes a soil sample to evaluate which important growth requirements are missing, and then he furiously starts adding organic fertilizers to replace the nutrients used up by last year's crop.

While the ground lays dormant outside, Stelts is inside, busily selling and trading seeds and quietly preparing for next year's crop. By spring, fertilizers introduced more than four months earlier have broken down, the soil replenished.

In April he'll take one last soil sample from his plot, as final confirmation that his pumpkins will find sufficient nutrients there. Then, he will plant his crop.

"The first of May is the usual rule of thumb for most competitive growers," he says.

From then on, the months pass quickly in a blur of watering, measuring, fertilizing and watching. This is the busiest time of the year for competitive growers. Across the country, they struggle to keep their pumpkins insect- and disease-free, shading them from the sun, and sheltering them from potentially damaging storms.

Stelts knows his pumpkins must maintain growth rates of almost 30 pounds a day if he is to successfully defend his championship.

"I've heard of them growing 50 pounds a day," Stelts says matter-of-factly. "But inevitably they'll split. You can push them too hard. The trick to it is sustaining that growth for a longer period."

Like giant sleeping pods, bright orange against the Ohio clay, the pumpkins grow steadily during the late summer and early fall, as Stelts piles on the fertilizers.

"I'm taking leaves, chicken manure, cow manure and mushroom compost," he says. "I'm saying I put on cubic yards, I don't even measure it by the pound."

Growers can mend a splitting specimen by plugging the crack with material taken from another pumpkin, caulking it with latex, and patiently waiting for it to heal.

"It takes some dedication, there's no doubt about it," Stelts says. "It's a labor of love."

Nevertheless, as a competitive pumpkin grower, that is his lot; he's not interested in squash. Watermelons don't send him rushing into the back yard with sacks of manure. Tomatoes are dull and ordinary. For Stelts, it's pumpkins. Pumpkins, pumpkins, pumpkins.

He'll have to wait until October to find out if his months of preparation and hard work pay off. He hopes he has a reason to use his specially constructed lifting device. Until then, he waits, he waters, he measures and he takes regular tissue samples, standing by with caulk at the ready.