Pumpkins abound at the Circleville Pumpkin Show. Pumpkin paraphernalia is everywhere and you can get just about any kind of pumpkin-based food you would imagine. A table covered with all kinds of pumpkins and gourds stretches for a full block down Main St. There is a tree-like tower made up from more than 200 pumpkins stacked one atop the other.
It makes a great backdrop, but let’s get real, this festival is all about producing Pickaway County’s biggest pumpkin. Like the fat heads of humongous cartoon characters, the big boys with their sagging jowls sit at the south end of the long table under the stop light for Main St. and Court St. They have numbers marked on them -- big numbers, 1076, 1216.5, and 1315. Those are pounds – pumpkin pounds. That’s how much these fellows weigh.
In 1980 when the weigh off started the winning pumpkin from Peters Farm Market came in at 273 pounds. In 2004 local optometrist Bob Liggett set the show record with a pumpkin that weighed 1636 pounds. Talk about increased production – these farmers know how to grow a crop.
Drought took a toll on the king-sized gourds this year. Liggett again produced the winner at 1315 pounds. It is the 11th time he has grown the show’s biggest pumpkin.
“I think my main advantage is the sandy loam soil on my plot. It’s a former sheep pasture and they used to raise claves on it, too,” Liggett says. “We can have a 3-inch rain and a day later you can walk across it without worrying about water.”
Oh yeah, there are a few other things. Some local alpaca producers deliver manure every year and that adds to his soil tilth. And he soil tests every fall -- keeping the pH at 6.9%. “It seems to make the nutrients available for uptake at that level, but some growers have moved to 7.5% lately, and they say that allows more calcium uptake and prevents disease,” he says. “I’m at 6.9% now, but I may go up.”
And then there are the extra grow lights. “The last 5 years the biggest pumpkins have been produced well north of us where the days are longer. To try to compete, I add 1000-watt grow lights with a red spectrum. They go on at 4 a.m. and off at 7 or 8.”
Liggett isn’t the only one standing around the display of giants and offering information about how to grow them. Lisa Gerchy and her cousin Joe grew the Circleville Pumpkin Show’s second biggest pumpkin on a neighbor’s farm near S. Bloomfield in 2011. This year wasn’t so good for them.
“The heat last summer was a big problem for people who didn’t have shade. We were trying to grow in the Sahara Desert. I hand watered them, but it wasn’t enough.”
And the Derecho winds hit their patch in late June. “It chopped our stalks right off,” she says. “The heat burned the growing tips and disease came in. We’ll try again next year.”
Gerchy and Liggett are members of the Southern Ohio Giant Pumpkin Growers. For a $5 donation to the organization, you can get a pair of seeds and detailed instructions on how to plant and tend the giant pumpkins that the seeds will grow.
“Most people don’t read the instructions,” she says. “But there is a lot to this business. It’s not just a hobby. It’s a drive. It’s almost an addiction.”
Liggett hosts a party every spring and a seed exchange for members. “I want everyone of to beat me,” he says. “But they know they are going to have to grow a big pumpkin to do it.”
Despite the drought year the number to win gets bigger each year. This year Ron Wallace, a grower from Rhode Island produced the nation’s first 2,000-pound pumpkin.
“Growing a 1,000 pounder is a milestone for us,” says Gerchy. “It’s hard to imagine a 1 ton pumpkin.” Last winter she attended the annual convention of giant pumpkin growers in Las Vegas where all kinds of scientific information was made available to growers. It attracted farmers from as far away as Germany and France. Gerchy is convinced there is a secret to giant success.
“We work our asses off out there in the field,” she says. “Joe and I know there is a key these guys have found, and we are not about to give up until we figure it out.”
At this year’s weigh in one of the presenters noted that the event may be the only sport where all of the competitors willingly share all their knowledge with the other competitors.
To that Gerchy says, “They share almost all they know. I’m convinced there is something more to find out and I’m not giving up until I find it.”