As Gourd as It Gets

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 8, 2007


In the company of another 100 or so giant pumpkins, the mammoth gourd doesn't seem quite as freakish as it must have in Arden Fry's vine-covered garden the day before.

Go to a convention of sumo wrestlers, and soon the outsize humans become the norm, and so it was on Saturday as dozens of freshly harvested pumpkins -- some the weight of a horse -- were corralled behind yellow caution tape, awaiting their turn on the scales at the Pennsylvania Great Pumpkin Growers Association annual weigh-off.

So we suspend disbelief and have a chat with the 31-year-old Fry about raising the beast at his side as if it were a garden-variety cucumber or tomato. The talk is of soil tests, manure, pH adjustments, all run-of-the-mill gardeners' chat, but the pretense unravels when Fry starts talking about August.

This is the month when the already seriously oversize fruit morphs into the star of "Little Shop of Horrors." The plant's searching vines grow a foot a day, the roots plunge deeper into the muck soil, and the creature needs to suck up 100 gallons of pure stored rainwater every day. If the vine is healthy, the lone fruit puts on 40 pounds or more a day. This is the truly eerie part: "Studies show," says Fry, "that 90 percent of the growth occurs at night."

The hand, which was petting the fluted monster, moves away.

Often, the fruit swells so fast that moisture seeps from the stem end, portending rot. Or it simply bursts like the fat man in the Monty Python sketch who had one morsel too many.

"Once it splits and gets air in it, it'll go down in a few days," says Tom Wright, a 60-year-old grower from Frenchville, Pa. If you want to retrieve the seeds, "it's like sticking your head into a garbage can." Or a dumpster, perhaps: Wright entered a pumpkin that weighed 563 pounds, a respectable effort 10 or 15 years ago, but an also-ran in today's extreme environment.

As about 100 pumpkin growers, fans and buyers look on, two forklift operators ferry the gourds on pallets to two industrial scales. They are lowered in specially made harnesses, and pumpkins that exceed 1,000 pounds, half a ton, are given a polite round of applause and the growers a T-shirt.

The governing body of this wacky pursuit, the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, calls it a sport and a hobby, but the pastime is now a genuine subculture of North America. And a perfect one, as it pairs a continent blessed with optimum conditions for squash-growing with a New World optimism that anything is possible with effort and method.

Arden Fry's colossus weighs in at 1,105 pounds, netting him fourth place in the Pennsylvania event. His wife, MaryJo, earned third place with a gourd that, though smaller and more misshapen, is 14 1/2 pounds heavier. The winner, however, is 15-year-old Nicole Hilstolsky, of Wyoming, Pa., with a squash that looks like a cantaloupe from Mars and weighs 1,272.5 pounds. The novice grower attributes her victory to "luck."

Her father, John, is a seasoned grower who gave his daughter a killer seed and let her get on with it. Nicole, incredulous at her win, wipes tears of joy from her eyes.

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