Thinking Spring? How about growing some giant pumpkins?

Apr 15, 2018

According to Danny Dill, you can't burn a dried out giant pumpkin for firewood, but you can certainly climb into one. "Actually, a giant pumpkin would be good to get inside to stay warm," he says with a laugh.

Dill's Atlantic Giant is the world's largest pumpkin variety. Danny Dill lives in Windsor, Nova Scotia. Danny's father, Howard, was a world champion pumpkin grower. Howard developed a variety of pumpkin that could grow truly huge - the Atlantic Giant.

"Back in the 1970s," Danny explains, "he had a mixed farm just like most farms. He kept livestock - beef cattle - and he had an apple orchard and vegetable gardens. He was involved in 4-H as a child and I think that's when he got his kind of showmanship/competitive part - the part where you want to enter to show stuff in the fall fairs - which was very competitive in them days.

"They had a local contest here, just who could bring the biggest pumpkin. In them days it'd be something that's 75 or 100 pounds. It was just an old Hungarian Mammoth Squash variety that some of the older seed companies offered - just whatever seed they had - and my dad... actually he taught himself genetics then, in the mid-'70s. He thought, 'Well, if I cross this particular plant with this one, could I produce one even bigger?' It's no different than if somebody was breeding livestock or a faster race horse or what have you.

"Lo and behold, he grew his first one over 300# in 1976 and he had taken it down to a show in Circleville Ohio. They had a huge pumpkin show. There was no prize money, just a blue ribbon.

"Anyhow, he continued on and kept working on it and he wanted to work more for the orange color because back in them days they could be green, orange, or mottled... So in 1979 he had his first world record that weighed 438#, and he continued breaking records each year, until for four straight years he was the world champion.

"He knew it was not a fluke - that he had something here. He had patented the variety and dubbed it Atlantic Giant, because we live on the Atlantic. And since then growers around the world have ordered his seed and they've gone on to produce bigger and bigger pumpkins that are over 2,600 pounds now."

Packets of Dill's Atlantic Giant seeds are widely available but seeds from pumpkins of pedigreed lineage and known poundage can be found on the Dill website. "A lot of these growers are very keen and they've educated themselves on the genetics of the Atlantic Giant. They're looking for certain seeds; crosses that have the potential to grow ones even heavier and bigger. Some growers don't care what it looks like or the color. They're just going for the weight. We find what we call 'cream color' ones tend to weigh heavier. They're thicker rind as opposed to what we call 'the nice orange pretty ones.' Those grow just as big but they don't seem to weigh as heavy."

Northern Community Radio co-host David Harrington had participated in a small pumpkin growing contest through his workplace last year (he didn't win). He ordered some premium seeds from Dill's, brought them to the studio in time for the interview with Danny Dill, and described the parent pumpkins as having been in the "paltry" 800 pound range (which is a long way from the 300-pounder Howard started with). The parent plants were orange, so they'll be nice and bright. 800 pounds is not 2600 pounds, but Danny said those seeds have potential.

When will it all end? "I can see 3,000 pounds being broken within 5 years," says Danny Dill. "It's just the whole selection process, and of course the growing conditions, which are very important. Some grower who's a really top grower will have the perfect growing season or some Lady Luck and will come out sometime with a 3,000 pound pumpkin.

"When you actually think of that flower that opens up and is pollinated - and it's usually the 1st of July when that happens - that something that big can grow that fast in a matter of three months (July, August, September because most of the contests are usually around the first of October). So in 90 or 100 days something can grow three thousand pounds.

"At one certain point during the cycle of growth of that pumpkin... it starts the size of a baseball, and at some point it would have to be putting on something like 100 pounds in one day."

Danny offers a few tips for growing giant pumpkins:

  • Start seed indoors in 4" peat pots around the end of April
  • The key is soil preparation. Plow the ground. Add two buckets (these are tractor buckets, not a pail!) well rotted manure for each plant and spread it around the growing area (400-600 square feet per plant)
  • Put a little greenhouse over each young plant to protect it from frost
  • Bury the side vines to anchor them from the wind. This will also enable them to put down roots.
  • The first female flowers will show up in early July. Hand pollinate them, either from a different plant or from a male flower on the same plant.
  • Leave 3 or 4 pumpkins on the main plant at the beginning. Pumpkins may abort when they reach basketball size, so it's good to have some backups.
  • Danny likes to leave two pumpkins on each plant. Vines will be 30 or 40 feet long
  • Terminate the vines in mid-August and bury them so they will root and add energy to the fruit.

There are potential pitfalls. "Some growers end up putting so much into it the pumpkins end up splitting," Danny warns. "Then you have nothin'!"

For Danny Dill, the pumpkin business has just "taken off." He grows over 40 varieties, including gourds and white varieties for weddings.  And each fall in Windsor Nova Scotia there is a Pumpkin Regatta, where 40 or 50 people paddle giant pumpkins in a race.

You can find Dill's Atlantic Giant website here: https://www.howarddill.com/