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Growing these massive one-ton pumpkins takes a green thumb and the perfect seed

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Each fall since 2011, the New York Botanical Garden has collaborated with the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth to display three of the largest pumpkins in the world. (Photo: Emily Faber, Sinclair Broadcast Group)

NEW YORK CITY (SBG) — When you close your eyes and imagine a pumpkin, it's very likely that the object that comes to mind is spherical in shape and orange in color. It may have a few bumps and grooves disrupting its smooth surface, or its texture might have a level of perfection only found in cartoons. It's almost certainly light enough to pick up, but your arms may start to ache as you carry it from the pumpkin patch to your car. The pumpkin is probably not much larger than your own head. There's a good chance that it has a face etched into it, with triangular eyes and a jagged smile and perhaps a flickering candle illuminating its innards.

But on the Great Pumpkin Path at the New York Botanical Garden, most of the squashes that you'll see on the twisting walkway bare little resemblance to the ones that you might pick out of a patch to turn into decorative jack-o'-lanterns. Some of them are orange, but many of them have splashes of another color creating intricate patterns or abstract expressionist designs, and plenty of the pumpkins aren't orange at all but shades of yellow, green, and a gray that's nearly blue in tone. There are round pumpkins, long pumpkins, curvy pumpkins, and flat pumpkins. You'll find pumpkins covered in raised bumps and pumpkins that resemble a lumpy stuffed animal with uneven filling. And at the head of the exhibit are the most astonishing pumpkins of all — three sagging behemoths that weigh over a ton each.

Aside from the New York Botanical Garden, state fairs may be the only place that the average person has ever encountered the concept of competitive gardening, where oversized fruits begging for a photo op fit neatly into place alongside grandiose junk food. The autumn festival tradition is often traced back to the American naturalist Henry David Thoreau, who marveled over a 123.5-pound pumpkin that he grew from a seed in his garden, but if you follow the roots of the connection between pumpkins and fairs, William Warnock is the name that will come up. Large pumpkins gained status as a curiosity when Warnock, a Canadian gardener, brought a 365-pounder to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. At the Paris World's Fair, Warnock achieved a 400-pound pumpkin. He again set a world record with a 403-pound pumpkin at the the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, a record would ultimately hold strong for over 70 years.

It was another Canadian who was responsible for the next landmark moment in the history of pursuit for the world's heaviest pumpkin. A farmer for all his life, Howard Dill became known as the "Pumpkin King" for his record-breaking squashes. Beyond those world records, Dill's true claim to fame was his genetic crossbreeding technique that led to hybridization of the "Atlantic Giant" pumpkin. This variety of pumpkin consistently produces fruit that surpasses the 400-pound mark, and many prize-winning pumpkins that reached far beyond that weight have had ancestral ties to Dill's Atlantic Giant. For as long as Dill lived, he sent a personal letter congratulating each grower that set a world record.

Now, even though "giant fruit and vegetable growing" was a hobby largely absent from the lists filled with ideas of how to spend all of your newfound free time that circulated at the beginning of quarantine, very few of the competitors who create these enormous beasts of a pumpkin are actually farmers by trade. You can buy Atlantic Giant seeds at grocery stores, and champions have recounted stumbling upon the hobby by accident.

"These are home hobbyists, so most of them have their normal jobs and then grow pumpkins by night and by weekend. A lot of the entries come from families who just get really obsessed with growing giant pumpkins," said Karen Daubmann, vice president of exhibitions for the New York Botanical Garden. "There’s a whole subculture that grows giant watermelons and gourds and squash and tomatoes, trying to become record holders."

Before Gary Grande started aiming for world records, he enjoyed experimenting with unique varieties of fruits and vegetables in his garden. He started to grow pumpkins in the early '90s and later decided to try to grow a couple of giant ones, encouraged by a friendly rivalry with a coworker. But just as Grande was feeling proud of producing a 400-pound pumpkin, he learned that the world record at the time was 1,446 pounds. Fueled by a desire for bigger and better results, Grande turned to the internet. "I started doing some research on it. I found out that there were a whole bunch of people growing big pumpkins, and they were pretty good at it," he said.

As Grande's passion for pumpkins grew in conjunction with his pumpkins themselves, he decided that Colorado needed a local club for those with similar interests and founded the Rocky Mountain Giant Vegetable Growers Club in 2006. By bringing growers together, Grande aimed to create a place where people could share their secrets and ask for tips in their quest for the biggest pumpkin. The club rapidly expanded and now holds five yearly weigh-offs, distributing prizes for the heaviest pumpkin at each event, as well as the prettiest and the ugliest ones.

Thanks to the success of the Rocky Mountain Giant Vegetable Growers Club, Grande was asked to represent his area for an organization called the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth; he's now been with the organization for 14 years and has served as president for the past four. The Great Pumpkin Commonwealth was set up with the mission of establishing standards and regulations for pumpkin weigh-offs worldwide, therefore eliminating the discrepancies that could otherwise come about from one competition to the next. "You could have a contest in Belgium, a contest in Australia or Canada or the United States, and they’re all weighed the same. They can then all be put on a linear scale for a worldwide competition," explained Grande.

Since 2011, the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth has collaborated with the New York Botanical Garden to bring some of their growers' largest pumpkins to the garden grounds each October for a public exhibit.

In response to COVID-19, many pumpkin weigh-off events and fairs at which the massive fruits would have been displayed were cancelled this year, leaving growers with far fewer options of where to show off their hard work. And according to Daubmann, the existence of this year's Great Pumpkin Path was far from a guarantee at the start of the pandemic. "Since March, we’ve all been wondering if the event would happen. We didn’t know if people were even still growing pumpkins," she said.

But coronavirus wasn't enough to keep growers from aiming high (and wide) this year, especially as many of the hobbyists did indeed have more free time during the shutdowns this past spring, and on Oct. 24, three gargantuan pumpkins arrived at the New York Botanical Garden. Though Rhode Island is the country's smallest state, two of the biggest pumpkins hailed from there this year, a 2,031.5-pounder and a 2,021.5-pounder; the former belongs to Joe Jutras, a retired woodworker who set a world record in 2007 at 1,689 pounds. The largest of the three pumpkins arrived from New Hampshire and clocks in at a whopping 2,268.5 pounds.

Transporting a pumpkin of this size is no easy feat. "That’s one of the biggest challenges. Some of the pumpkins weigh over a ton, and they can be over 20 feet around. So you do need heavy equipment to move it," said Grande. "You get kind of good at doing it after a while, but you still always hold your breath." He mentioned that the process of moving the pumpkin can also reveal flaws and deficiencies, such as holes from rats, that were hidden before the pumpkin was lifted and unfortunately render the damaged fruit useless for the purpose of competition.

Over the years, pumpkins have been sent to the New York Botanical Garden via FedEx, they've been shipped in the cargo bay of planes, and they've come in on the backs of pickup trucks. This year, restrictions related to COVID-19 altered the arrival procedures slightly; the Rhode Islanders were kept from being able to enter the garden at all, while the New Hampshire grower was still allowed to assist with the process.

Because of the pandemic, the botanical garden also changed the location of the exhibit from the Everett Children's Adventure Garden to the more spacious Conservatory Lawn, a move that has actually led to increased interest in the pumpkin path. "I think it was good for us to take the pumpkins out of the children’s garden, because not every grown-up wants to be in a children’s garden. It’s been really, really cool to see them out in the open for people to enjoy." Daubmann said.

The high level of interest in the giant pumpkins was evident even on a rainy Wednesday morning, as masked visitors stood in socially distanced groups around the three stars of the show waiting for photo opportunities and wondering out loud how the growers were able to achieve such astounding sizes. In fact, the secret to growing a colossal pumpkin isn't actually much of a secret at all, as the clubs are as friendly as they are competitive, and members will share tips and tricks freely among growers old and new. However, if you have aspirations of one day holding the world record, you'll need more than information alone; it's a combination of technical knowledge and the right seeds and soil for the job that will allow you to reach a competitive level.

"It starts with good seed, and then you have to have good soil. The best seed in the world put into bad soil is going to end up being a bad plant. At the same time, you can grow a 500-pound pumpkin by not doing a whole lot if you’ve got good soil and you water it," said Grande.

500 pounds may be enough for bragging rights among your friends, but it's that "good seed" that has the potential to propel your pumpkin to championship levels, alongside the assistance of several other techniques used to optimize the growing process. The most valuable seeds come from prize-winning pumpkins, and prime seeds can go for hundreds of dollars at an auction. For this reason, all three of the monstrous pumpkins at the New York Botanical Garden have a hole carved in their backside, marking the spot where the growers scraped out the seeds to parent future generations. It's through breeding that the world record for giant pumpkins has continued to grow in recent years to the current total of 2,624.6 pounds, set in 2016.

The upper limit to a pumpkin's size isn't clear. Scientists have discovered that the immense fruits have more phloem, a type of tissue responsible for moving sugars around the plant. Because the pumpkins are so adept at moving the sugars that provide carbon for fruit growth, there is very little that would limit their size in proper conditions, according to Smithsonian Magazine. With larger and larger sizes seeming very much possible, growers have paid top dollar for champion seeds, looked toward the usage of mycorrhizal fungi in plant compost to aid with nutrient absorption, and started housing pumpkins in greenhouses, where walls provide safety from hungry animals and inclement weather.

"For years and years, when I started this relationship with the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, they wanted to get to the 2,000-pound mark. And now, many of the pumpkins are over 2,000 pounds, so I’m curious what the next thing that they want to breed for is," said Daubmann.

While their build is undeniably impressive, the three largest pumpkins are far from the prettiest in the exhibit, as genetics have prioritized size over looks in the pursuit of prize money that's awarded based solely on weight. All three look a bit saggy and flattened, which Daubmann attributes to gravity weighing them down, and they're not particularly colorful. But if you're looking for pretty pumpkins, there are plenty picture-perfect ones alongside the rest of the garden's path. And if you're looking for more strange and misshapen pumpkins, there are plenty more of those to be found too.

One of the highlights of the Great Pumpkin Path is what Daubmann refers to as "the pumpkin theater." Arranged on the steps in front of the conservatory, a rainbow assortment of pumpkins offers visitors the chance to gaze up at the wide variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and textures within the pumpkin family. "We put one of each type of pumpkin and added labels with a little bit of information, so you can see if it’s something you could use to cook with or something that’s just decorative. It’s all organized in rainbow order. It’s really interesting to be able to see a scope of all of the different types of pumpkins that are available at this time of year and what they could be used for," said Daubmann.

The Great Pumpkin Path will be on display at the New York Botanical Garden only through Nov. 1, and advance timed-entry tickets are required for admission to the garden. The garden has proper protocols in place, such as restricted capacity and mandatory face coverings at all times, to ensure that guests stay safe during their entirety of their experience. Select spaces where social distancing may not be possible remain closed at this time, but there is still plenty of stunning fall foliage to be seen in the garden's picturesque 250 acres.

For those inspired to grow sizable pumpkins of their own after viewing the exhibition, Grande emphasizes the welcoming nature of the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth. "We’re always happy to share our information and to share our seeds and to share our friendship. That’s the best part, because you’re not just growing fruits and vegetables. You’re also growing relationships," he said.