Julia Scott

Archive for October, 2011

The father of all pumpkins

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

The biggest pumpkin in the world this year weighed 1,818.5 lbs. and came from Wellington, Ontario. But its story actually began in 1986 in Windsor, N.S.

Twenty-five years ago, a Windsor man named Howard Dill patented a pumpkin seed variety he named the Atlantic Giant. Dill was a full-time farmer and part-time mad scientist. Home from the evening’s chores, he’d work for hours at the kitchen table, doodling pumpkins and taking notes on his experiments. He spent years secretly perfecting a new line of super heavyweight pumpkins.

Courtesy Macleans
Courtesy Macleans
What started as a friendly rivalry with other local farmers at the Hants County Exhibition’s annual pumpkin weigh-off became a full-on obsession by 1980. Before the decade was out, Dill set two records for the world’s heaviest pumpkin. But it wasn’t his pumpkins that made Howard Dill the most famous man in the giant pumpkin world. It was the seeds inside them that, combined with his own genetic crossbreeding technique, sprouted the modern quest for the biggest pumpkin of all time.

Today, 20 generations of competitive pumpkins can trace their roots back to the first Atlantic Giants. This fall, more than 10,000 hobbyists in 14 countries entered giant pumpkin contests using seeds derived from Dill’s. “He is the father of the modern pumpkin weigh-off. There’s not one growing now that doesn’t go back to him,” says Dave Stelts, president of the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, a nonprofit that sanctions over 80 pumpkin weigh-offs around the world.

Dill died in 2008, but he lived to witness the world’s first 1,600-lb. pumpkin. Now growers are closing in on the 2,000-lb. mark. “He just couldn’t imagine a 1,600-lb. pumpkin. It was beyond him,” says Howard’s son Danny Dill, who runs the Dill Farm with his sister, Diana MacDonald. Today, the farm draws 5,000 tourists a year and sells 2000 lb. of seeds—enough to grow 2.4 million pumpkin plants. Atlantic Giants are tipping the scales in Australia and Finland.

The prospect of a one-tonne pumpkin would have dumbfounded Howard Dill. A quiet and serious man with a seventh-grade education, Dill taught himself about plant genetics by reading gardening magazines. It occurred to him that he could isolate a male and female flower and perform his own pollination ritual to combine the most desirable characteristics of two plants—one with a nice orange colour and one heavy enough to break the back of his hay wagon. When he swept the weigh-offs for three years straight, he knew he had his own genetic imprint.

His real source of inspiration was the farm itself. “He was so particular about what kind of bull he would allow to breed with his cattle. He liked a quiet bull, not a bad bull. He just took it from that to the pumpkins,” says Danny Dill.

Championship pumpkin growers aren’t entering beauty contests. Their ideal pumpkins look more like mutant lumpen marshmallows, their skin a mass of hardened yellow-green scar tissue. The inner walls can be 30 cm thick, decidedly unfit for pumpkin pie—but perfect for a weigh-off.

Today, the Dill seed brand is better known for its pleasing orange hue than its girth. It’s a beginner’s seed, guaranteed to produce a supreme jack-o’-lantern. Like a parent who looks up one day and realizes his children have grown to be taller than him, Dill watched younger growers push their gourds into a different stratosphere using products and techniques he’d never dreamed of.

These growers have invented a few methods of their own, like garnishing plant compost with exotic amendments such as kelp extract and mycorrhizal fungi. No sacrifice is too great for the pumpkin elite, who spend thousands of hours pruning, heating, cooling and sheltering their pampered gourds. They spray the leaves with misted carbon dioxide, and treat them for root rot, fearful of disease. They mail leaf samples to far-off laboratories for analysis, and use the results to decide which additives—including calcium and phosphorous—to apply. Then they stand back and watch as their titanic fruits gain up to around 50 lb. a day.

As each generation of gourds surpasses the last, it produces seeds that form the basis for the following year’s mutant orbs. The seeds with the grandest lineage are much in demand within seed-trading circles and at online auctions. Someone paid US$1,600 for a seed from the 2010 world championship pumpkin, which weighed 1,810 lb. and was grown by a contractor named Chris Stevens in New Richmond, Wis.

Clad in blue jeans and a checked shirt, Dill transcended the role of small-town farmer and became the worldwide ambassador for his Atlantic Giants. He and his homegrown gourds appeared on The Martha Stewart Show, but he also gave his time to every visitor to his farm who wanted to talk pumpkins (or hockey, his other passion). When someone set a new world record, Dill sent a personal letter congratulating him or her on the achievement. He wrote those letters well into his seventies, right up until he died.

Iowa grower Don Young got one of Dill’s letters in 2007, after he grew the second-heaviest pumpkin in the world. He had invoked Dill’s name on Good Morning America, thanking him for his contribution to the hobby. “I should really frame this thing,” says Young, who got into growing giant pumpkins after buying, on a whim, a packet of Dill’s Atlantic Giant seeds at a local garden store. (The seeds are sold at Lowe’s stores in the U.S.)

In many ways, Dill was the last of a breed. Very few champion pumpkin growers are farmers today, but many see themselves as inventors on the land. Stelts, of the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, grew an 1,801-lb. pumpkin in Pennsylvania this year—but he also grew an eight-foot-tall tomato plant and green beans as thick as carrots, with the same kinds of methods and products he used on his pumpkins. “I’ve got yields now that are just out of control,” he says. “If we can grow an 1,800-lb. pumpkin, imagine what you can do in your garden. To see that translate over to the dinner table is really exciting.”

Windsor has a carved wooden statue of Dill, smiling beneath his baseball cap. But few Canadians are aware of the legacy of the man who passed on his obsessive quest for the perfect seed. Fewer still have seen the family farm, which grows 30 pumpkin varieties and houses cattle in the same old barn, built in 1840, that Dill’s own father grew up working in.

Windsor triples in size over Thanksgiving weekend for the annual Pumpkin Regatta, as 10,000 spectators drive up to watch a few dozen locals row (awkwardly) across Lake Pesaquid in brightly painted, hollowed-out giant pumpkins. (There’s also a motorized competition.) “A couple of women approached Danny and said, ‘What can we do with these pumpkins other than grow them?’ and Danny said, ‘Let’s have a race with them,’ ” recalls Diana MacDonald. The regatta is now in its 13th year.

Danny Dill still has his father’s meticulously detailed notebooks, with their pumpkin snapshots, doodles and descriptions. “He made notes about the stem, the ribs on it,” he remembers. “The pumpkins themselves, he would just sit and look at them.”

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The migration of the Vaux’s Swift

Friday, October 7th, 2011

HOST: Each fall, hundreds of thousands of birds descend the California coast on their journey south. One species spend their nights in chimneys, creating a spectacle that draws onlookers from around the state. Reporter Julia Scott visited a popular roosting site in the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg last week and brought back this postcard.

rio-vaux-swifts-01
Photo by Bernadette Chadwick
JULIA SCOTT: A few minutes before sunset, a small crowd gathers on a lawn at Rio Lindo Adventist Academy in Healdsburg. They’ve got picnic blankets and lawn chairs, cameras and binoculars. They’re sitting around, staring at an office building with an old chimney, and waiting for something. Something magical.

BERNADETTE CHADWICK: Bernadette Chadwick, I live in Los Gatos, California. I was anticipating a chimney that was a really old thing, like 100 or 200 years old and then I found this building. Very surprising that it’s so modern.

Chadwick and her family drove more than two hours for this chimney – or more precisely, the birds that are starting to converge around it. The Vaux’s swifts, one of four species of swift, are coming home for the night. They roost in chimneys. And for a few weeks in September, as they pass through California on their southward migration, birders come to watch the swifts pour themselves down into chimneys – sometimes 20,000 at a time.

CHADWICK: It’s very exciting to anticipate the moment when they’re going to go into a huge mass and decide to go down into the chimney and give us all a treat.

And now, it’s showtime. After a meal of spiders and mosquitoes, the swifts mass into a living tornado… hundreds of birds turning together in a circle, spinning clockwise, moving closer and closer to the top of the chimney. The sun is setting, and the swifts look like bats in the sky.

CHADWICK: Oh, it’s mind-boggling. It’s fabulous, I can’t even describe it. I love their chirps, don’t you? It’s like the stars in the sky the way it’s circulating around. It’s just gorgeous.

Suddenly, a peregrine falcon swoops into the column… Then, a few moments later, a cooper’s hawk dives in for the kill. This time, it catches a swift in midair.

Brad Benson counted 1,200 swifts tonight, relatively low for this time of year. He’s an administrator at this school and he’s part of a network of birders who track the swifts on their annual fall migration.

BRAD BENSON: This is the Pacific coast migratory flyway for birds coming out of Alaska and south. They just somehow discovered this chimney in 1989 when we stopped using the building for heating the water year-round on campus.

Chimneys weren’t always an attraction. For centuries, the swifts nested in the hollow trunks of redwood trees, but 95 percent of those trees have been cut down. That led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the Vaux’s swift a California Species of Special Concern. Chimneys and smokestacks became the best alternative, since they’re big enough for the birds to fly inside.

LARRY SCHWITTERS: They don’t perch, they hang, and they’re able to hang on the mortar between the bricks and line up like shingles.

Larry Schwitters, a retired science teacher in Washington State, was the first to sound the alarm over the fact that those old-fashioned industrial brick chimneys are now themselves endangered.

SCHWITTERS: It’s reaching the point where there’s fewer and fewer chimneys, and the birds are getting concentrated more and more and more, and eventually we’re going to run out.

Schwitters has travelled across the Northwest, cataloguing popular roosting sites, and he’s created a website to track the swifts on their migration. He and a network of volunteers with the Audubon Society plan to use the data to preserve the most important chimneys.

Birders can catch the Vaux’s swift as they descend upon Los Angeles next week at one of their favorite roosts, the downtown Chester Williams Building.

For the California Report, I’m Julia Scott.

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The race to grow the one-ton pumpkin

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

Early one morning about a month ago, Don Young peeled the floral bedsheets off the giant pumpkins growing in his backyard. Tiptoeing around the jungly vines, he carefully checked for holes. Then, bending his ear down over the nearest gourd, which was as high as his gut and wider than a truck tire, he gave it a solid smack and listened intently, like a doctor with a stethoscope.

A giant pumpkin grows in Don Young's backyard in Des Moines. (Julia Scott)

“This one’s thumping pretty good,” he said with a grin.

Mr. Young is one of a number of amateur gardeners whose heart’s desire is to raise a pumpkin bigger than anybody else’s. These enthusiasts have always been obsessed, but now they are especially so. With the current world record at 1,810 pounds (a Smart car, by comparison, weighs 1,600 pounds), these growers can see the most important milestone of all on the horizon: the one-ton pumpkin. Galvanized by the prospect, they are doubling their efforts and devising a raft of new strategies involving natural growth hormones, double grafting and more, to become the first to reach that goal.

This fall’s pumpkin contests have begun, and as many as 14 amateur growers have won regional weigh-offs with entries tipping the scales at more than 1,500 pounds. The contests are far from over — they continue in force over the next two weekends — but already one pumpkin, raised by Dave Stelts of Edinburg, Pa., has come within three pounds of beating the 1,810-pound record set last year. Rumor has it that a record-breaker may emerge in California.

The extreme summer weather this year has somewhat dampened the prospects of many growers in the Midwest, including Mr. Young. Still, he plans to enter a couple of 1,300-pounders in a weigh-off in either Wisconsin or Minnesota this weekend, and true to his hobby’s compulsive form, even as he prepares for those contests he is busy mapping his strategies for next year.

A professional tree trimmer by trade, Mr. Young, 47, spends $8,000 a year on his pumpkin hobby, money he admits he does not really have. His modest one-bedroom house is smaller than his backyard.

“If you try to make a living growing pumpkins, you better have something to fall back on,” he said about his day job.

Mr. Young has set state pumpkin records in both Iowa and California — in 2009 Conan O’Brien smashed one of his giant pumpkins on television with a monster truck — and he is a leading figure among those who are fashioning new growing practices. He has invented a grafting technique, for instance, that pushes the food and energy of two pumpkin plants into a single fruit. Other top pumpkin competitors are experimenting with ZeoPro, a synthetic cocktail of supernutrients developed by NASA to grow lettuce and other edible plants in space.

This year, several growers have also tested out a pink powder bacteria that converts a plant’s methane output into a natural growth hormone found in seaweed. Called PPFM (or pink-pigmented facultative methylotrophs), the substance is not even on the market, but the lure of the 2,000-pound pumpkin prompted those growers to obtain samples from RTI, the company in Salinas, Calf., testing the bacteria.

“These guys will try absolutely anything to get an edge on their competitors,” said Neil Anderson, the president of RTI.

In fact, growers typically feed their pumpkins a compost “brew” so rich — the water is mixed with worm castings, molasses and liquid kelp — that the fruits can gain as much as 50 pounds a day.

“I like to say we’re just a big bunch of obsessive-compulsive people,” said Mr. Stelts, 52, the president of a group of giant-pumpkin enthusiasts called the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth. “The stuff we do to get pumpkins to this size, it’s out of control.”

Sometimes, Mr. Young said, he will just sit among his pumpkins.

“This is going to sound really crazy, but when these are really at their peak growth, they’ll make a sound,” he said. “You can feel it. It’s something surging in the pumpkin. Bup. Bup.”

When the season ends, growers like Mr. Young often tow their creations to a fairground or botanical garden for display; with walls a foot thick and low sugar content, the pumpkins are not fit for pie. But this inedibility has not deterred contractors, doctors, midwives and other amateurs from growing them.

BigPumpkins.com, the Facebook-like forum of the giant-pumpkin world, now gets more than a million unique hits a month. And according to the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, the number of officially sanctioned weigh-offs has grown from 22 to 92 in seven years, and now includes competitions in Italy, Finland and Australia.

With the right seeds and soil preparations, veterans say, it’s fairly easy to grow an impressively large pumpkin. But the hobby’s elite, while still amateurs, operate on a different playing field. These growers spend hundreds of dollars on laboratory analyses of soil and plant tissues to help them decide whether to add more nitrogen, say, or calcium. And they speed photosynthesis by spraying their plants’ leaves with carbon dioxide.

“We’re taking a natural process and we’ve got complete control over it,” said Steve Connolly, 56, a grower in Sharon, Mass., whose pumpkins consistently rank among the world’s 10 heaviest.

Taking control begins with pollination, a process that growers have wrested from the bees. In early summer, they cross-pollinate the pumpkins themselves, selecting a male flower from one plant and rubbing the pollen onto a female flower from another. Other budding pumpkins are eliminated so that the main vine supports only one plant. As extra vines sprout, they are likewise removed. The patch is more than tended. It is manicured.

But it is the seeds, a strong indicator of a pumpkin’s size, that are the most bankable factor in the quest for giants. Last fall, Chris Stevens, 33, a Wisconsin general contractor who grew the 1,810-pound pumpkin, sold a single seed from it for $1,600, by far the most anyone has ever paid for a pumpkin seed. Its descendants may prove just as valuable.

Seed trading has helped set new world records almost every year since 1997, when a pumpkin first broke the 1,000-pound barrier. The Giant Pumpkin Commonwealth bestows special leather jackets on those who have grown a pumpkin over 1,400 pounds, a club that includes fewer than 50 gardeners. But Mr. Stelts said he was raising the minimum to 1,600 pounds because of the escalating competition.

“We’d like to award everybody,” he said. “But you know what? It’s not the Boy Scouts. You’ve got to prove yourself.”

Mr. Young keeps his pumpkin trophies, ribbons and plaques in a corner of his living room. Cash winnings are reinvested in his hobby. But there is no award for what may be his greatest accomplishment: dual grafting.

To explain, he crouched in the dirt, pointing to a double stump that he grafted together in his kitchen last winter. Each stump is the size of a beefy forearm, and the root systems bring in twice the nutrients.

“They told me it couldn’t be done, they told me that for years,” said Mr. Young, who had to sacrifice 300 pumpkin seeds before he discovered the best way to fuse two young pumpkin sprouts. He borrowed a surgical knife from a hog farmer to shave the stems and then clipped them together with hair barrettes. Soon he and his wife, Julie, had to avoid knocking over pots and heat lamps spread around the kitchen counters.

Next year, he plans to grow all his pumpkins with grafted double sprouts. “With good weather, I can really set the world on fire,” he said. His competitive spirit is also extending beyond pumpkins; he has started to grow championship long gourds that are as thick as a bull snake.

Mrs. Young, 46, supports her husband’s hobby and has even won a trophy herself for pumpkin growing. “It’s exciting,” she said. “He doesn’t do anything small. He’s all in, like in poker.” She added, “People don’t realize that there’s gardening, then there’s extreme gardening.”

Extreme gardening involves money and sacrifice. Mr. Young wakes up in the middle of the night to check his pumpkins. He uses 27,000 gallons of water a month — nearly enough to supply a family of four for a year — and he has 80 sprinkler heads. He runs heat lamps all night after planting seeds in the chilly April ground, and cools his gourds with fans in sweltering midsummer heat. He can’t remember the last time he took a vacation.

Still, for all the work, heartbreak is inevitable. A gardener can pamper his gourds for months and vigilantly stave off rot, disease and bad weather. But sometimes the giant fruits are so juiced up that they do not know how to stop feeding themselves.

Mr. Connolly remembers with particular sadness one morning a few years ago when he left his pumpkins to go to church. He was gone for less than an hour, but he returned to find that his biggest pumpkin had exploded under the force of its own growth spurt.

“There was a footlong crack through the rind,” he said. “It just blew up.”

A Patch of Your Own

Many of the principles of growing giant pumpkins apply to normal pumpkins, too. And unlike the giants, the regular fruits make for a delicious pie.

BOOKS Good texts for the novice include “The Perfect Pumpkin,” by Gail Damerow, and “The Compleat Squash: A Passionate Grower’s Guide to Pumpkins, Squashes and Gourds,” by Amy Goldman.

SOIL Pick a sunny site and, before winter begins, buy a pH test kit to see if your soil needs amending. The ideal pH range for pumpkins is 5.5 to 7.5. Pumpkins also like nutrients, so apply a thin layer of antibiotic-free manure and a thin layer of compost to the soil.

SEEDS Garden stores carry plenty of seeds. For a particular variety, ask a fellow gardener on the message boards at BigPumpkins.com or attend one of the annual seed swap events listed on GreatPumpkinCommonwealth.com.

INDOOR PLANTING To get a jump on the season, start seeds inside in late April and transfer the sprouts outside in early May, perhaps under a protective cloche.

OUTDOOR PLANTING Plant seeds in late May, and at least 20 feet apart if you have the space; pumpkin vines grow fast.

GROWTH Pumpkins sprout quickly. To avoid a “Little Shop of Horrors” in your backyard, remember that for every female flower you allow to pollinate, you will get a new pumpkin — and a new set of vines. Burying vines every week helps keep the plant anchored, creates taproots and protects it from squash vine borers, the bane of pumpkin plants. Foliar, or leaf, sprays and dry fertilizer aid pumpkin growth.

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