« North Carolina schools recognized for safer pest management | Main | Virginia Hyatt, wife of former Extension director, dies »

October 27, 2005

4-H agent raises champion state pumpkins

Simmons with prize pumpkin
4-H Agent Wallace Simmons poses at the N.C. State Fair with his champion pumpkin, weighing in at 854 lbs. (Mark Dearmon photo)

The pumpkin patch at Wallace Simmons’ Canton home only has a few pumpkins, but he keeps it that way on purpose. Simmons’ pumpkins weigh from about 500 to 850 lbs., and he has grown North Carolina’s largest pumpkin for the past five years.

A 4-H agent from Haywood County, Simmons won first place at the State Fair this year with a whopping 854-pound pumpkin. It is still not the largest ever grown in the state – that one weighed 860 lbs., and Simmons grew it as well.

Even North Carolina’s largest pumpkins don’t stand a chance in international competition. The longer daylight and cooler nights of more northern climates provide the best growing conditions. This year’s world champion, grown in Pennsylvania, tipped the scales at 1,469 lbs., enough to feed pumpkin pie to a small rural town.

Raising a giant pumpkin is no small feat, especially for a 4-H agent with a busy summer schedule of camp, 4-H Congress and activity days. When he’s away, Simmons relies on his family to care for the burgeoning pumpkins. “It’s hard to get them this big without rotting. You have to treat them like a baby the whole summer,” Simmons said.

Simmons got started growing big pumpkins when he offered to bring one from Haywood County to the State Fair for a local grower. After the fair, he dumped the pumpkin in his compost pile, which yielded a 375-pound volunteer pumpkin the next year. Simmons was hooked. At that time, the state record for pumpkins was about 600 lbs., a record that Simmons has since smashed.

Simmons says there are three key factors to growing a large pumpkin: good seed, good soil and good luck. Water management is also important, and Simmons says his water bill during pumpkin season will increase by $20 to $120 per month.

“You have to manage the water carefully or your pumpkin will split. Then your pumpkin will be gone for the year,” he said.

Canton was struck in fall 2004 by two major hurricanes that dumped 12.5 inches of rain. The roots of Simmons’ pumpkin vines drowned, and the largest pumpkin stopped growing at 852 pounds.

Simmons starts seeds in a greenhouse in May and transplants them at the perimeter of his yard after the treat of frost is past. As he identifies the most promising pumpkins on each vine, he removes others to allow all the plant’s energy and nutrition to flow to the giant-pumpkins-to-be.

Once the pumpkins get large, Simmons keeps them covered because the sun can harden the skim and may cause cracking before the pumpkin reaches it’s full size. Other threats to pumpkin health are insect and rodent damage, disease and vine damage.

Moving the 850-pound pumpkins takes power. With a lifting tarp, eight to 10 people can lift one. Simmons uses a modified engine hoister to lift his pumpkins on a pallet into the back of his pickup truck.

After the State Fair, Simmons delivers his prize pumpkin to a buyer in Winston-Salem who carves it into a giant jack-o-lantern for a Halloween party. The buyer cleans and saves the pumpkin seeds so Simmons will have a start for next year

Simmons shares his skill with other would-be large pumpkin growers, sharing lessons on seed germination with Haywood school children. He will send seed free to those who request it and provide a stamped, addressed bubble pack for shipping.

And he shares the experience with his 4-H’ers. “I tell my 4-H’ers to do their very best in everything they do, just as I give this (raising pumpkins) my very best,” he says.

--Natalie Hampton

Posted by Natalie at October 27, 2005 02:05 PM