A young Brookfield resident with a passion for growing pumpkins is harvesting his largest to date on Wednesday — estimated between 1,200 and 1,400 pounds — in time for an official weigh-in at the Durham Fair.
Russ DeGrazia Jr., a sophomore at Hamilton College in New York, has been growing giant pumpkins in his Brookfield backyard garden for over a decade and, since joining a group of growers that call themselves Team Pumpkin, is helping to spread the fruits of his labors.
DeGrazia said he began growing sugar pumpkins in his father Russ Sr.’s garden when he was a young boy. Then, one year at an annual weigh off on the green in New Milford, he met grower Wayne Hackney, a local legend among giant pumpkin enthusiasts. Hackney showed young DeGrazia the ropes and soon he was growing oversized squash of his own.
(DeGrazia also grows other large produce and holds the current state record for tallest sunflower at 14’ 7”.)
“Every year that you grow, when you start you try to break 1,000 pounds,” DeGrazia said. “Then, you just try to grow bigger and bigger.”
Judging from the circumference, the king of this year’s crop looks to be about 1,200 pounds, however the same seed last year weighed in 20 percent heavier than its size indicated (1,064 pounds), according to DeGrazia, giving him hope that he might break 1,400 this year.
The current world record holder is just over 1,800 pounds and the state record, set last year by a Team Pumpkin member, weighed in at 1,487 pounds.
The keys to growing the largest pumpkin possible begins with good seeds, according to DeGrazia, and good seeds come from a good line. DeGrazia has been cultivating his seeds for years, but newcomers to the hobby can trace a seed’s lineage online going back seven or eight generations.
The second key factor is the shape — a gourd that doesn’t grow in a good, round shape is likely to crack when it gets too large and split open. The shape of the pumpkin can be managed by propping it up at the right times during its growth and making sure it has plenty of room in the patch.
The third is time and care.
“That’s one of the great things about the hobby: your time commitment depends on what you want,” DeGrazia said. “If you just throw seeds in the ground, you could get a couple of 300-pounders or even a 500-pounder,” but to grow a truly large pumpkin requires a green thumb, hard work and no small amount of vigilance.
A pumpkin can grow 40 pounds a day during the height of the grow season, and a squash raised under optimal conditions during the right stretch will continue to expand.
“Once you get to 1,000 pounds, the gap between 1,400 and then 1,800 gets smaller,” DeGrazia explained. If he can grow a gourd 1,400 pounds, “sustain that growth for just 10 more days” and he’ll be on the heels of a world record.
In order to maximize growth potential, DeGrazia plants his seeds in May and spends his summers carefully grooming the vine (“Growing it like a Christmas tree”), cutting off budding gourds that aren’t on the main stem or don’t show potential, weeding and tilling the soil, covering the pumpkins as they grow so that they don’t turn orange and ripen and tending the leaves, which tell the story of how a pumpkin is growing.
“Someone will think their pumpkin is doing great but we’ll take a look at one of the leaves and know there isn’t enough nitrogen in the soil,” or some similar issue, DeGrazia said.
That kind of knowledge is exactly why Team Pumpkin was created.
Cultivating a Community
“There are some people out there — not many but some — that try to keep secrets” about their growing process, he said. If that thinking prevails, DeGrazia said he is worried that the hobby won’t progress or have as large a following.
Team Pumpkin is comprised of 15-20 core members and welcomes anyone interested in growing giant produce. Their motto: everyone should grow a giant pumpkin and Team Pumpkin wants to help.
To that end, the team holds a meeting every spring and offers anyone interested a packet of good seeds and all they need to know to grow their own gigantic gourds. The only stipulation is that the growers bring their produce for weighing at the annual Durham Fair.
[To reach Team Pumpkin and get advice on starting your own patch, contact them through their website.]
DeGrazia will be harvesting his pumpkin Wednesday morning and preparing it for weighing later in the day along side all the other Team Pumpkin members.
Though he is pursuing a biology major at Hamilton, DeGrazia said he doesn’t plan on growing oversized squash professionally.
“It’s definitely a passion and a hobby,” he said, and one he recommends. “But I’m going to keep it that way for now.”