Surely there must come a moment for every grower of giant pumpkins when he wonders if he might be losing control of the monster he has created in that pampered plot of laboratory out back.
For Ken Desrosiers of East Windsor, that moment arrived in August, when during a six-day stretch his Pumpkinstein was gaining more weight - 20.5 pounds per day - than a Krispy Kreme regular.
When Desrosiers finally removed Wicked-Wide Wilma from her vine on Oct. 4, what had been the size of a quarter on July 11 weighed 840 pounds.
That was large enough to set a state record, eclipsing the 821 pounds set only weeks earlier at the Durham Fair by David Garrell, a doctor from Fairfield.
But as impressive as Wicked-Wide Wilma might have been, she was a runway model compared to much of the competition at the Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts.
At Topsfield, four pumpkins weighed in at more than a half a ton. And the winner, grown by Charlie Houghton of New Boston, N.H., tipped the scales at a world record 1,337.6 pounds.
Wicked-Wide Wilma came in 12th of 75 entrants. Three other Connecticut growers placed in the competition, in which the smallest pumpkin was an anorexic-looking 270-pounder.Giant pumpkins are more than the mad stylings of a few crazed turf tillers, or living proof that nuclear power may be running amok.The hobby is becoming increasingly popular with garden-variety types, as evidenced by the steadily growing membership in national and international giant-pumpkin organizations. A website called bigpumpkins.com, which was co-developed by Desrosiers, now has 6,500 subscribers and averages more than 1 million hits a month.Desrosiers, 34, a software engineer - which explains Wicked-Wide Wilma (WWW) - grew his first giant pumpkin five years ago from seeds his mother brought home from the Big E."I had no idea what I was doing," he says. "I just planted it in my garden with the rest of the vegetables, and it grew outside the fence and onto the lawn. I had to mow around it all summer."When that first pumpkin stopped growing, it weighed a measly 125 pounds, but that was big enough to hook Desrosiers.Over the winter, he set about learning all he could about the art and science of giant-pumpkin growing. This led him to Alan Reynolds, an experienced giant-pumpkin grower from Durham who not only provided valuable information but also gave him some seeds to plant the next spring.The key to giant-pumpkin growing is in the seeds.All world-class giant pumpkins are grown from Dill's Atlantic Giant seeds, of which there are many variations. Just as is the case with purebred dogs, a seed's bloodline can be traced back from parent to parent.For example, seeds from Desrosiers' state-record pumpkin will be recorded and filed as an "840 Desrosiers 2002." Although the seeds from some prize-winning pumpkins can sell for as much as $600 each, most growers simply trade or give their seeds away.Once you have the right seeds, the work, or the fun, begins."The first thing you have to have to grow giant pumpkins is full sun," Desrosiers says. "You also need space, at least 600 square feet for each pumpkin, although I do 1,000 feet."Then you need really good soil, which is heavily amended with compost. I get 10 yards of leaf compost and 10 yards of cow manure every year. Some people use even more. You want to get the organic matter in the soil to about 10 percent. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it took me years to reach that."Seeds are planted in April, but germination doesn't occur until July. To grow prize-winning pumpkins, you limit them to one per vine.This year, Desrosiers grew two pumpkins, the second one topping out at 620 pounds. "I wanted to take it to the Big E," he says, "but it split on me."After germination, the obsessing begins."Pumpkins are 80 percent water," Desrosiers says, "so they need a lot of water. I water mine for an hour every day with two sprinkler heads going full blast."Besides watering, the burgeoning behemoths need to be sprayed frequently to ward off insects and fungi."I have a lot of money invested in equipment," Desrosiers says. "I have a sprayer, a tiller, tubing, timers, hoses and a mist system to keep the pumpkin cool during the hot part of the day. I even bought a pickup truck to move it around. It adds up to quite a bit of money."Even with all the care, expertise and equipment, Desrosiers says growing a prize-winning pumpkin often boils down to luck. "If it's too hot or too cold or too dry, or there are insects or disease or hail storms - all of those things affect growth."Everything about pumpkin growing is balance. The main thing is to keep the plant growing, and to do that, you have to keep it stress-free."Just before the Topsfield Fair, Desrosiers separated his pumpkin from its tangled life-support system. The Topsfield Fair is not only the premier venue for giant pumpkins in the Northeast, it is also one of the official weigh-in sites for the annual world competition.To get his pumpkin loaded on his truck for transportation to Topsfield, a friend of Desrosiers from Tolland, Bob McNamee - a former Connecticut record holder at 776.5 pounds - brought over his tractor. Chains were hooked to a tarp beneath the pumpkin, and it was carefully lifted into the truck."Tense would be an understatement for how I felt while that was going on," Desrosiers says. "I pretty much didn't breathe while it was in the air."If the pumpkin had broken, it would have been ineligible for competition.Desrosiers says he doesn't name his pumpkin before it is safely loaded and transported because in the past when he did so the pumpkin split. "I'm pretty superstitious about naming pumpkins," he says.After the fair, Desrosiers brings his pumpkin home and, with the help of friends (it took seven this year) unloads it onto his garage floor, where he carves it for Halloween and leaves it on display."My 4-year-old son, Nicholas, doesn't know what a small pumpkin looks like," Desrosiers says.When Wicked-Wide Wilma begins to decompose, Desrosiers says he will take it into the backyard and bury it."That's kind of a sad note to end on," he says.While Desrosiers says giant pumpkins are edible, he doesn't eat his because of the various chemicals and insecticides he uses. He does, however, recover the seeds, which total about 600.So what is it about giant-pumpkin growing?"I guess I do it because I enjoy it," Desrosiers says. "I enjoy watching something grow so big so fast, and I also enjoy the competitiveness of trying to grow the biggest pumpkin, trying to outdo yourself." Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times