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Pocatello man masters art of growing giant pumpkins

October 9, 2018

No, milk isn’t used to fertilize giant pumpkins.

“There are so many crazy theories,” says Clifford Warren, of Pocatello, an expert at growing prize-winning Atlantic Giant pumpkins.

Warren lingered around his 692-pound blue ribbon winner at the Eastern Idaho State Fair to listen to people’s comments.

How many pies does he make from a giant pumpkin? None.

His wife, Sondra, said giant pumpkins lack flavor.

“I make pies from my small jack-o-lantern pumpkins,” she said.

How was it moved? Carefully.

“I used to find six or seven friends to help me lift a pumpkin,” Warren said.

Several years go, he started using specialized equipment. He rolls the pumpkin and slips a sling underneath. Webbed straps resembling seat belts are attached to a chain hoist supported by a 16-foot-tall wooden tripod made of 4-inch square posts.

“I raise it, then slowly lower it on a carpeted pallet in the bed of my truck,” he said.

Warren, 53, an electrical engineer at ON Semiconductor, says friends at work “know every summer it’s time for my crazy hobby and ask me how big they’re growing. I’ve always been a gardener and am competitive, plus giant pumpkins just make people smile.”

He credits his sister with planting the idea.

“She gave me a book about growing giant pumpkins in 2000, and it took off from there,” he said. “Two years later, I started entering them in the fair.”

He saves his biggest pumpkin for the Utah Giant Pumpkin Growers Weigh-in. His 763-pound pumpkin placed 10th at the contest Sept. 29 at Thanksgiving Point.

“You can enter each pumpkin in only one contest,” he says. “At Utah, I’m always happy to be in the top 10.”

Last fall, he placed second at the Utah weigh-in with a 992-pound pumpkin, the largest he has ever grown.

A broker often helps growers sell their pumpkins for as much as $1 per pound.

“Managers at car dealerships, banks, and hospitals buy them as a talking point for customers and patients,” he said. “I sold this last one, so it never made it home.”

He plans to keep his prize-winning pumpkin from the Blackfoot fair until about Thanksgiving when he will harvest seeds for next year.

Warren shared his secrets for growing the behemoths.

“It’s basically good gardening practices, having suitable soil and the right amounts of moisture and warmth,” he said. “Probably most important, though, is that you develop a gut instinct because something unpredictable usually happens every summer with weather.”

In early April, he plants seeds indoors from his previous year’s winner. A few weeks later, he transplants about four or five with the most potential to his patch and covers them with a hoop house to protect them from the cold.

By early July, the flowers open.

“You generally select a blossom growing about 10 feet from the main vine, so the pumpkin will have room to spread as it grows.”

Each plant produces male and female blossoms.

“The females are only viable during the morning of one day. I’ll cross-pollinate by hand, then tie the blossom shut with a tendril, so bees won’t get in.”

In July, the pumpkins begin gaining weight rapidly, about 25 pounds a day.

“You can actually see them grow in a day,” Sondra said.

Warren fertilizes weekly with fish emulsion, seaweed, and humic and fulvic acid. He is careful to not allow his pumpkins to grow too quickly.

“If they grow too fast, the skin will crack,” he said.

To keep the pumpkins in the ideal temperature range of 50 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, he covers them at night with blankets and sprinkles them with water during hot weather.

“We joke he tucks them in every night,” Sondra said.

He waits until the night before a weigh-in to cut the vine.

“You leave it on the vine until the last possible moment,” he said. “Whatever the weight, it’s worthwhile growing them.”

While he is tending to his giant pumpkins, Sondra grows about 100 jack-o-lanterns. In October, they invite their children, grandchildren and friends and neighbors to pick out a pumpkin for Halloween.

After Warren has harvested the seeds, the pumpkin will nourish next year’s crop.

“We’ll spread the pumpkin on the garden or use it for compost,” Sondra said.

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