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Monster veggies: Learning to grow enormous squash, tomatoes and pumpkins

February 18, 2019
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Glenn Snodgrass hooks up a giant pumpkin grown by Dick Kilburn of Anacortes on Sept. 24, 2016, during the Skagit Valley Giant Pumpkin Festival at Christianson’s Nursery and Greenhouse so it can be hoisted onto a scale. The pumpkin weighed in at 1,165 pounds.

MOUNT VERNON — Producing average-sized vegetables is one thing, but growing gigantic squash, gourds, tomatoes or pumpkins takes a unique blend of care.

On Saturday, 16 people gathered at Christianson’s Nursery and Greenhouse to learn how to grow monsters of their own.

The class was taught by Lee Roof, an award-winning pumpkin grower and president of the Pacific Northwest Giant Pumpkin Growers.

The Whidbey Island resident said his interest in giant pumpkins began 20 years ago when he bought a pack of giant pumpkin seeds in a hardware store, thinking it’d be a fun thing to do with his kids.

“They grew out of the hobby. I didn’t,” he said.

Over the past two decades, Roof has honed his techniques on everything from seed procurement to soil conditions, to weather protection to watering.

In 2018, Roof grew a 1,379-pound pumpkin. The world record is held by Mathias Willemijns of Belgium, who grew a 2,624-pound pumpkin in a greenhouse in 2016.

While most growers will not come close to those weights, Roof said just growing for fun will likely yield at least a 300-pound pumpkin.

To start, Roof said seeds should be purchased from proven vendors, such as P & P Seeds and Howard Dill, not at local stores. Using proven vendors ensures the seeds will come from grown giant pumpkins.

More expensive seeds are decedents of champions.

For soil, Roof said amendments such as compost or composted manure are necessary to improve the ground’s physical properties. Clay and sand are your enemy. A soil pH of 6.5 to 6.8 is ideal.

After germinating and transplanting the seeds — more information can be found at bigpumpkins.com — Roof said the next step is protecting the plant from the elements.

“In this area, weather protection is a must,” he said. “Fifteen minutes of direct sunlight can kill a plant.”

Roof recommended covering the plant with plastic tents, which always should be opened to avoid overheating.

Consistent watering is also important because it keeps growth spurts under control, he said. Watering no less than every other day is best.

At the end of his presentation, Roof handed out three packets of giant pumpkin seeds to the attendees, including Rowan Lorio of Anacortes.

Rowan said he became interested in giant pumpkins this past Halloween after seeing his neighbor’s competition-level pumpkins around the neighborhood.

His mom, Dallas Lorio, said some of those neighbors show their biggest pumpkins at the annual Skagit Valley Giant Pumpkin Festival at Christianson’s, which will be held Sept. 21 and emceed by Roof.