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Extreme pumpkins — Up and coming local grower chases a giant goal

Giant Pumpkin Grower Mark Murphy performs an
Giant Pumpkin Grower Mark Murphy performs an 'autopsy' on one of his Atlantic Giants to determine the fruit's rhine thickness and internal cavity size in effort to better prepare for the next growing season.
— image credit: Greg Skinner/staff photo

At the end of each pumpkin growing season Mark Murphy autopsies his crop of giants.

Murphy is looking for rhine thickness, cavity size and seed production of pumpkins from the stock he started with at the beginning of the season.

“The thicker the rhine the heaver it’s going to be,” Murphy said.

Murphy’s crop of giant pumpkins, this year, range from 200 pounds at the smaller end of the spectrum to a 703 pounder – 10 pounds shy of his best and half the weight of the current state record giant pumpkin.

“There are certain clues to what went wrong,” Murphy said after cutting a square access hole into the back of one of his smaller giants.

By wrong, Murphy means his 703 pounder not reaching the 1,000-pound mark that he feels he can grow the Maggie 1100 seed stock into if everything were perfect in pollination date, proper pruning and the magical mixture of nutrients and voodoo applied to the chosen fruit.

“I know damn well it’s achievable,” he said.

Murphy grew his 703 pounder from a seed from Bonner’s Ferry resident Rick Maggie’s 1,100 pound Idaho state record pumpkin.

Ron Barker, president of the Pacific Northwest Giant Pumpkin Growers, said that most of the seeds going around the giant pumpkin growing scene are Dills Atlantic Giants. From year to year seeds from the biggest grown in the region and across the country are sold in a supply and demand situation somewhat unique to the giant pumpkin game.

The current world record 1,810 pound pumpkin had only 20 viable seeds inside, Barker said. It’s that “wow factor” and everyone wants the seeds from the biggest pumpkin ever grown that dives prices up. One person paid $1,600 for a single seed from that pumpkin, he said.

Based on the seed stock that Murphy and so many others are growing, Barker said the bench mark goal for giant growers is 1,000 pounds.

What Murphy already knew before firing up his Sthil chainsaw,  to cut through the rhine of several smaller “culled” eighth of a ton giants waiting in the grass, is that a much earlier start in the growing year will greatly improve his odds of winning – even with a cold and cloudy June and July like this year.

Murphy’s 703 pounder was pollinated on July 27, a full three weeks after the prime time to pollenate of July 4, the date that  Mike Popp, of Poulsbo,  germinated his giant that came in at 863 pounds during the Shoreline weigh in. Popp produced a 1,106 pounder during the 2003 growing season and a 1,280 pounder in the 2009 season.

Barker said the biggest three pumpkins in Washington this season ranged between 1,100 and 1,393 pounds. Oregon saw several hundred pounds more in growth for its three largest, which ranged from 1,506 to 1,610 pounds.

The Murphy 703 placed 13th  at a regional sanctioned weigh off held Oct. 8 at the Central Market in Shoreline. That contest saw Stan Pew’s 1,393 pounder take the win.

“It looked like a giant UFO,” Murphy said.

Giants take on a drooped shape as they grow due largely to gravity.

This week, Murphy’s 703-pound giant is entertaining hundreds of children every day at Pheasant Fields Farm in Silverdale. Shannon Harkness, an employee at the farm known for its fall corn maze and pumpkin patch, said Murphy’s is the largest ever displayed at the farm. The kids love that big pumpkin, they’ve gotten so much enjoyment from it and guessing the weight, she said.

Next season

Like an athlete that did not practice in the off season, Murphy holds himself accountable for the lag in his pumpkin size and what the lost time did to the best part of the growing season in Western Washington.

Murphy should have been looking at a 16 to 20 -inch pumpkin on July 27,  the day he was instead pollinating the flower.

Next season Murphy’s seed stock will be hand germinated by April 1 and in it’s growing house by May 1.

Murphy’s drive to get bigger and bigger results is inherent in giant pumpkin growing, according to Barker who said that the minute one season ends the next begins by critiquing his work and looking for ways to get bigger giants. You have to be motivated to grow giants, it’s a lot of work, he said.

“My goal is always to grow my personal best,” Barker said.

Hinting at a desire to swing too far in the opposite but corrective direction for next season, Murphy expressed a known limit, “I can’t start in February.”

According to a 2011 International Journal of Non-linear Mechanics, giant pumpkins have a 140 to 160 day growing season compared to regular pumpkin’s cycle of 90 to 120 days.

Part of David Wu’s paper explained that predicting the maximum pumpkin size acheivable was nearly impossible because of a vast amount of varriables.

Wu and his team were looking at the ability of giant pumpkins to grow without splitting from the incredible rate of cell expansion or the general effects of gravity on weight.

Pumpkins grow at night

No stranger to growing things for food or just for the heck of it, Murphy is the third generation to till the five acres of Buck Hollow Farm. With tomatoes by the ton, acorn squash and zucchini growing at times, Murphy keeps bees to pollinate it all. Everything but his giants. Those, he hand polinates in the early morning during the first day the boom opens on the bud he has identified as a likely winner.

Growers know the day before the blossom blooms that it’s coming. He rushed out at first light on July 27 to pollinate then cover the flower before his bees could get there to do the work and possibly cross pollinate his giants with lessor genes.

During the first ten nights  of growth, goes from quarter size, to silver dollar, to hardball to basketball. The pumpkin should be 16 to 20 inches in diameter by the end of July. Then comes August and they really begin put on the weight.

Giants can add up to 50 pounds of weight a day during the height of the growing season, wrote Wu of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Every branch will try to grow into a giant salad if you let it, Murphy said. He  favors the the secondary vines on the outside edge to make the final selection and pollinate for his competition fruit. That big winner will  likely be growing on a down hill slope, Murphy said.  Murphy said he wasn’t sure how others feel about giving away the secrets of giants, but he is adamant that tertiary vine growth be stopped at all cost. It forces root growth to take up enough water to support the beasts about to materialize from the earth, he said.

Competition giants, 700 pounds and up, will take 600-square feet of soil per fruit to produce, according to Barker, who manages his competitor giants in his 3,800 square-foot back yard.

Someone looking to grow a few 300 pounders for the front porch jack-o-lanterns can do it in 150 square feet of soil, he said.

Seven years into growing giant pumpkins for competition, Murphy compares it to his former sport of full contact judo. There is money, humiliation, winners and loser, he said

He overcame foaming-stump-slime from too much water, seaweed, fish heads, molasses, miracle grow and coffee grounds. Mostly he fertilizes with chicken and rabbit dung.

“A pumpkin grower is always trying new crap,” Murphy said.

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