Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 22, 2017
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The great pumpkin

Ontario's prize-winning, sumo-sized squash

Growing giant pumpkins is no small feat for Mike Petrocci. In fact, his patch once showcased a not-so-dainty 391-kilogram specimen. “It’s a bit

of an off-beat hobby,” laughs the 52-year-old emergency physician who works in St. Catharines, Ontario. “But it’s incredibly fun watching them get so big.”

The current world record for oversized pumpkins is 766 kilos, held by Joe Jutras of Scituate, Rhode Island. Some of the biggest come from Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, the Midwestern US and the Pacific Northwest.

Petrocci’s love affair with pudgy pumpkins began in the mid 1990s. After watching giant veggie weigh-offs at local fall fairs, he decided to give it a try. 

“I like the idea of creating something,” explains Petrocci, who grows anything from apricots to zucchini with his wife Valerie Jaeger (also a physician) in their Niagara-on-the-Lake backyard garden.

“Growing a giant pumpkin is almost like a pregnancy. There is a whole process of nurturing it along,” he explains. The medical doctor devotes about two hours a day to his patch. Tasks include weeding, burying vines, pruning and watering — to name a few. 

Aesthetics also play a big part for Petrocci. “I like to grow good-looking pumpkins — the really big, round and orange ones with big ribs.”

But beauty isn’t important to every grower. “The heaviest pumpkins win the prizes,” he explains. “Most of the trophy winners are flat, ugly and have a creamy colour.” To qualify for top prizes, pumpkins usually need to be over 453 kilograms (1000 lbs.). Port Elgin hosts the top weigh-off in Ontario, but several weigh-offs are held worldwide each fall.

According to Phil Hunt, president of the Giant Vegetable Growers of Ontario, folks from all walks of life are drawn to the whimsical sport. “People are just amazed at the size of them, get curious and want to see if they can grow one. It’s a great hobby the whole family can enjoy, and the prize money is pretty good if you win ($5000 in Port Elgin),” explains Hunt. 

Money can also be attained from prize-winning pumpkin seeds, with some fetching anywhere from $500 to $1000. 

Super-sized true-green squash, long gourds, watermelons, tomatoes, cabbage, tall sunflowers and corn are also popular in competitive growing. 

What’s the trick to getting these creatures so big? “Lots of hard work,” says Russ Landry, a well-known Thornton, Ontario grower who devotes several hours a day tending to his heavyweight garden during peak growing months.

Well-balanced soil, lots of water, warm weather, good-quality (giant pumpkin) seeds and good luck are also required to grow these into monsters, explains Landry, a 50-year-old roller-coaster maintenance technician at Canada’s Wonderland. Popular fertilization methods include fish, kelp meal and compost teas. 

In search of the great pumpkin, some growers will try just about anything, including putting milk, molasses, human hair, beer or birth control pills in the soil. Some even use bat manure or magnetized water (water run through magnets) to get their pumpkins to gain more weight. “There are lots of crazy stories out there,” chuckles Landry, who readily admits to being a bit obsessive about the wacky sport. “And some of them do work.”

In today’s information age, keeping journals of patch chores, for future reference, is key for any successful grower, says Landry whose biggest pumpkin tipped the scales at 514 kilograms. “The science of the hobby continues to march along,” he adds. Some growers test soil for nutrient levels, while others send leaves to local laboratories for tissue analysis. 

Frank Catapano, a Woodbridge, Ontario dentist, says the unique hobby grounds him. “It’s great to get home from a busy day and work in the garden. I find it really relaxing.” This year, he’s working with his brother, Gerry (also a dentist) to produce a prize-winning heavyweight. “Together, we are going to nail it,” he says hopefully. 

A decade into the sport, Catapano’s biggest pumpkin has weighed in at 486 kilograms. This year, with three gigantic orange beauties in the patch, his fingers are crossed. The 49-year-old dentist also has a soft spot for growing giant tomatoes.

Catapano, who spends anywhere from 25 to 30 hours a week tending to his patch, is drawn to the competitive nature of the sport, and the biology of it fascinates him as well.

“It’s a big science experiment for me,” he admits. “These guys can grow about nine to 16 kilograms a day. I can’t think of any other plant or animal that grows that fast. It works out to 500 grams an hour,” says Catapano.

Much of the growth comes from water. On a hot day, a thirsty pumpkin can drink between 190 to 400 litres of H20. Pumpkins can actually grow up to 23 kilograms a day, but growers don’t encourage this, as it can lead to splitting.

But growing a prized beauty is a delicate process. And you have to go easy, explains Adrien Gervais, a Barrie, Ontario farmer, who has been growing porky pumpkins since 1998. Over-watering, over-feeding and extremely fast growth can cause cracking, a grower’s worst nightmare, because it leads to disqualification at weigh-ins (if it splits into the cavity).

Patience and TLC are also required. Gervais, who has received several trophies at Port Elgin’s Pumpkinfest (including first place in 1999) covers his hefty pumpkins nightly with blankets to keep them warm. 

Getting an overweight veggie to a weigh-off can also have its share of problems. “One year, we had a failed giant pumpkin extraction with a forklift,” laughs Petrocci. Long story short, the over-weight beauty never hit the scales, because the fork-lift removing it from the garden got stuck in the mud.  

Forklift setbacks aside, Petrocci says another good reason to grow over-weight pumpkins is the curiosity factor. “They’re a real conversation piece. Folks always ask about them.”

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