By Starrla Cray
WRIGHT, CARVER, McLEOD, MEEKER COUNTIES, MN Massive or miniscule, smooth or lumpy, pumpkins are a passion for people all over the region.
“Some of these people spend hours with their pumpkins,” said Mike Dekarski of Apple Jack Orchards in Delano.
Jumbo pumpkins (ones that weigh more than several people put together) are especially time-consuming to grow.
Winsted Township Chair Tony Hausladen is personally familiar with the joys and pitfalls of producing these giant orange spheres.
His first attempt two years ago resulted in one that weighed 575.5 pounds well over his 500-pound goal.
Jim and Karen Otto of Delano also like to grow ‘em big. The Ottos were among several enthusiastic pumpkin growers at Apple Jack Orchards’ annual pumpkin weigh-off Sept. 29.
“I received the Howard Dill Pumpkin Award and $100 for the prettiest pumpkin. It weighed 512 pounds,” Karen noted.
“I think the biggest one was 1,297 pounds,” Dekarski said.
Although that may sound unbelievable, it’s still a long way from the world record. ABC News reported a new record of 2,009 pounds, set at the Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts Sept. 30.
“Well, I certainly am not going to try to beat that one!” Karen noted.
The pumpkin launcher
Although bigger is better in some cases, lighter pumpkins are easier to fling through the air with a trebuchet.
Don Nelson of Nelson Farm in Litchfield knows all about this. His pumpkin patch festival has all kinds of attractions, including the famous “pumpkin chucker flinger thinger.”
With its 20-foot arm, the trebuchet launches pumpkins about 450 feet.
“We’ve been developing a new one on wheels,” Nelson said.
Good to grow
Of course, pumpkins have to grow before they can be launched (or eaten or carved).
“Growing pumpkins, you always have challenges,” Nelson said. “Most of the time, we get a really great crop, though.”
In 2011, for instance, the bees at Nelson Farm had trouble pollinating in the spring because of excessive rain. The water also killed some plants in low spots.
“This year, we were doing really great,” Nelson said.
Then, the cucumber beetles came.
“They go into the pumpkins to get moisture,” Nelson said.
Fortunately, most of the Litchfield farm was unaffected.
“We have lots of pumpkins this year,” he said.
In addition to about five acres of pumpkins, Nelson Farm also has a huge corn maze.
“It’s political this year,” Nelson said, explaining that the maze is in the shape of a donkey and elephant.
Nelson Farm is hosting a “meet the candidates” event Saturday, Oct. 13 at 1:30 p.m.
Nancy Larson (DFL House), Scott Newman (Rep. Senate), Steven Schiroo (DFL Senate), and Dean Urdahl (Rep. House) will be greeting constituents at the trebuchet.
“We’re going to have them try the trebuchet see who’s the best shooter,” Nelson said.
For those who’d rather not send their pumpkins soaring through the sky, there are plenty of other options.
Pumpkins make for festive fall decorations, and add a touch of color when placed next to green plants.
“They look really nice in planters,” said Jane Holasek of Fred Holasek & Son Greenhouse in Lester Prairie.
With more than 40 varieties of pumpkins, gourds, and squash, the greenhouse is a feast for both the eyes and stomach.
“We sell a lot of squash there are some delightful kinds,” Holasek said. “They all taste different.”
Although squash is often used for soups and pies, a quick treat can be made by poking the skin with a fork and cooking it whole in the microwave for 10 to 12 minutes, or until soft.
“Then you can have squash any night,” Holasek said.
Gourds are also nice to have around. Although they’re inedible, they can be made into birdhouses and rattles after they’ve dried out.
One type of squash, called the Yugoslavian Finger Fruit, is also perfect for projects.
“Kids love to paint eyes on these to make them look like aliens,” Holasek said.
A glowing imagination
Painting and carving often spark creativity in both children and adults.
“What I really like about it is the imagination,” said Laura Dimler of Dimler Pumpkin Patch on County Road 10 near Watertown.
Most people end up purchasing a standard orange pumpkin, but Dimler said they love seeing the unusual varieties, too.
“Pumpkins are for everybody,” she said, adding that her customers range from young children to the elderly, and everywhere in between.
“A lot of people come here on dates, which is super fun to see,” she said.
For Dimler, a big part of the fun is hunting for that perfect pumpkin.
“When customers want to just get one off the wagon, I tell them the whole point is to get some fresh air and exercise,” she said.
Some are more accustomed to gardens than others, however. At least once every year, someone who doesn’t understand how pumpkins grow will ask Dimler, “So, you really move all these out here?”
This spring, Dimler had to plant three times, because the rain kept interfering with the seeds. Fortunately, the setback didn’t affect her crop.
“They look beautiful; I’m very excited about them,” she said. “Some years they’re smaller. This year they’re pretty big.”
Dimler, who is converting her patch to organic, doesn’t keep track of how many pumpkins she grows.
“I’m all about the art, not the science,” she said.
For the sport of it
Bill Foss of Bill’s Big Pumpkins in Buffalo has a different reason for growing pumpkins.
“It’s a competitive hobby,” he said. “Some call it a sport.”
Foss spends most of his effort on giant pumpkin growing.
“The biggest one I ever grew weighed 1,213 pounds,” he said. “It’s a combination of a lot of work, skill, and Mother Nature.”
It starts with special seeds, which are planted inside in April, and kept at 85 degrees. The seeds are then transferred outside, where they are protected with a hoophouse.
“It keeps it warmer, and it warms the soil, too,” Foss said.
Only one pumpkin is allowed to grow per plant. That pumpkin is then watered, fertilized, and sprayed for insects and funguses.
The growth of giant pumpkins is like a bell curve, according to Foss.
“During the peak two-week time frame, it can easily put on half its weight,” he said.
This year, one of Foss’s pumpkins grew 370 pounds in 10 days.
“That’s 37 pounds per day,” he said.