By Jessica Mozo
Gary Volkenand likes nothing better than the sight of a giant pumpkin taking shape in his own back yard.
“When the pumpkins get up to 100 or 150 pounds, I put sticks in the ground alongside them, and every morning I go out and look. Lots of times, they’ve pushed the sticks over,” Volkenand says. “I’ve heard people talk about them puttin’ on 30 pounds a day.”
This pumpkin connoisseur has been growing Dill’s Atlantic Giant pumpkins – a variety concocted by Howard Dill of Canada – since 1997 and entering them in Allardt’s annual Great Pumpkin Festival and Weigh-Off.
In 2005, Volkenand took home the second-place prize for his 841-pound pumpkin, which broke the Tennessee state record.
He also garnered a prize for his 599-pound green squash – the biggest green squash ever brought to the Allardt festival.
“My wife Mary Lou and I win something just about every year. Last year, she got third place for her 680-pound pumpkin,” Volkenand says. “But the past few years, this man from North Carolina has been waxing us. He beat me by 13 pounds this year, so now my goal is to beat him.”
And the competition doesn’t end at the festival – there’s also some friendly competition within the Volkenand household.
“My wife will plant her own pumpkins, but then she wants me to take care of ’em,” Volkenand says with a chuckle. “We do compete with each other, but it’s all in good fun. She gets more into giant watermelons – we grew a 182-pound watermelon in 1998.”
Growing giant fruits and vegetables may be a giant load of work, but Volkenand has found that the end result can be pretty valuable.
“A guy offered me $500 for my 841-pounder this year, but I wouldn’t sell it,” Volkenand says. “I wanted to keep it.”
So what does a man do with colossal pumpkins after the competition is over?
“I keep ’em around for a while, and then cut ’em down and get all the seeds out. Then I dry the seeds real good and freeze them for next spring,” Volkenand says.
“People send me letters requesting the seeds, and I’ll send them five or six seeds. I don’t charge anything for them – I like to pass the genetics on.”
He also likes to pass on the pumpkins themselves. Last year, Volkenand donated a 640-pound pumpkin to a children’s home in North Carolina, and the children carved it to make a huge jack-o’-lantern.
The process of growing a giant pumpkin takes about 120 days. Volkenand has it down to a science.
“I start the seeds indoors about the 21st of April, and I like to get them in the ground by the 10th of May,” he says. “By the Fourth of July, you’ll get two or three primary vines, and ideally one or two pumpkins starting on the vines.”
The goal is to determine which pumpkin on each vine is growing the fastest and, eventually, to “get it down to one pumpkin.”
“You shut your eyes and cut off the others,” Volkenand says. “You don’t want to leave them on the vine too long, or they can cost the big one 50 or so pounds.”
Volkenand grows eight to 10 giant pumpkins each year.
“That’s about the most you can take care of,” he says. “Each one takes up 30 to 40 feet of space.”
Just about anyone can grow a giant pumpkin if a few things are kept in mind, Volkenand says. And he offers up this advice for beginners who want to compete with the big boys.
“First thing, you want to make sure you have good-drainage soil, and do a soil test to see the pH, or acidity, of the soil. Pumpkins like 6.4 to 6.8 pH, and that’s very important,” Volkenand says.
“Then you want to put a lot of compost like rotted manure on the soil to get it ready. And you need to get Dill’s Atlantic Giant seeds.”
The seeds can be purchased by mail order from Howard Dill (www.howarddill.com). Volkenand says he’s also happy to share his seeds with anyone who asks – he can be contacted through the Allardt festival Web site, allardtpumpkinfestival.com.
He says it’s also important to put a canopy or a cover over the pumpkins when they get up to about 100 pounds to shield them from the blistering hot sun.
“A giant pumpkin shouldn’t be moved a lot when it’s growing, because you take a chance of breaking the stem,” Volkenand adds. “There’s a lot of luck to it, too. It takes good soil, good seeds and good luck.”
The biggest deterrent to would-be giant pumpkin growers is the cost of the fungicides and pesticides necessary to ensure healthy pumpkins. The chemicals can cost as much as $230 for a gallon jug.
He suggests splitting the cost of the chemicals with another pumpkin grower, since you won’t need to use a whole gallon of it in one season.
Growing the giant pumpkins is more work than most people would care to bother with, but Volkenand doesn’t bat an eye.
“I’ve always liked to watch stuff grow. There’s just something about it,” he says. “You get addicted.”
He’s also got his eye on the first-place trophy for the next festival.
“I’ve never won first place for my pumpkins,” he says. “I hope to get a 900-pounder this year.”
Battle of the Giants
If you’ve never seen an 800-pound pumpkin, consider an old-fashioned road trip to Allardt the first weekend in October for the annual Great Pumpkin Festival & Weigh-Off. Gary Volkenand, reigning Tennessee pumpkin king, will be there, as will contestants from across the region.
And there’s more to the festival than just pumpkin weighing. Enormous watermelons and squash also come to compete, and the festivities heat up with a giant-size lineup of activities. Last year’s festival even included fireworks. And as if that weren’t enough to warrant a road trip, Allardt is nicely located for touring Historic Rugby or hiking in the Big South Fork.
Check out the complete schedule of events at Allardt Pumpkin Festival’s website or call (931) 879-7125.