By Dylan Bennett
TO BE HAPPY with himself, Kenwood butcher Tom Geney needs to gain at least another 50 pounds this summer. He’ll need lots of food, drink, and careful attention to lying around. Topping the scales at only 147 pounds last year, Geney hopes to break the 200-pound mark this fall. Even then, he’ll only be a little guy in the art of growing giant pumpkins, the largest vegetables on earth.
“I should get serious,” says Geney, 56, who carefully tills his pumpkin beds with compost and turkey manure, and plies his plants with copious plant food, water, and steer manure “tea.”
Serious indeed are a couple dozen giant pumpkin fanatics in Sonoma County, who pursue the Big One with unsettling obsession and compete for high honors at the Harvest Fair. To be the giant pumpkin king, a gardener must now get well past 500 pounds. But that’s nothing. Last year, someone in New York State grew a record-breaking 1,060-pound pumpkin.
“That’s the biggest vegetable grown on the face of earth at anytime in history. That’s incredible,” gushes Ulysses van der Kamp, who grows the great orbs on Sonoma Mountain. His biggest gourd last year was about 300 pounds, says van der Kamp, who won first place for most unusual pumpkin–it was square because he grew it in a box.
“It’s an addiction,” states van der Kamp flatly. “It’s unbelievable. Some pumpkins on the East Coast grow over 20 pounds a day. You can literally almost watch them grow. I’d like to get over 500 this year, but then so would everybody.”
If Geney needs to get serious, then van der Kamp is already there. He recently spent $800 on Mango Mulch at Grab-N-Grow, the garden soil company on Llano Road near Sebastopol. And he’s open to help from higher powers. “We live right next to the Zen Center, so we get all the positive vibes coming over. I’ve thought about having the roshi come up and bless my pumpkins.
“Everybody thinks I’m nuts.”
In early May, pumpkin growers plant seeds of the Pacific Giant or Great Atlantic variety. Then they commit themselves to a long summer of watering, feeding, weeding, pruning, and pest and rodent control. The main vines are buried, forcing them to lay extensive roots. The prize winners are selected for success as mere blossoms by virtue of their stamen count and proximity to the main root. Each vine is allowed to grow three or four gourds to about the size of a baseball before all but the fastest-growing are culled.
Then the lead squash is tapped for glory.
“The bottom line is you need to start with good seed, and the pumpkin can’t do without for a day of its life. You can’t let it starve for a moment. Whatever goes wrong takes away from the pumpkin,” says van der Kamp, now in his fourth pumpkin-growing season. At 30, van der Kamp is the baby of the giant-pumpkin-growing community.
Speaking of great pumpkin patches, appropriately it was van der Kamp’s job as a chef at Charles Schulze’s Redwood Empire Ice Arena that led him to his pumpkin-growing mentor Ian Allison. Van der Kamp, charged with finding a giant pumpkin for the ice arena’s Halloween-themed Great Pumpkin Patch, contacted Allison, who has a full-blown case of pumpkin fever.
Allison, 72, a retired Santa Rosa business executive, is a 10-time Sonoma County Harvest Fair winner for biggest pumpkin entry during the 1980s. He has a simple explanation for the excitement around these big, sluggish veggies: “It’s competitive,” he explains. “Like horseracing, it gets in your blood.” But for Allison, it’s deeper than that. He’s the president of a non-profit outfit called Seed Corps that promotes gardening to children, and pumpkins are a big part of that effort.
TV star Eddie Albert of Green Acres fame is Allison’s partner in this garden plot.
“The easiest thing to grow is a pumpkin,” says Allison at his lush experimental gardens on Mount Taylor, overlooking Bennett Valley.
“If a kid grows a pumpkin, pretty soon he’s going to be growing a garden. And if he’s growing a garden, he’s growing good healthy food. And if you teach a man to grow food, then you teach him to eat for the rest of his life. That’s our bible on this thing.”
But even pumpkins have their predators. Allison says his crop last year was destroyed by “bacterium wilt,” a disease carried by the 12-spotted cucumber beetle. During the winter he grew a thick cover crop to purify the soil. And last year someone stole van der Kamp’s biggest pumpkin before he could weigh it. “It must have taken two or three guys,” he calculates. Most big pumpkins, however, are destined for happy endings. A youngster correctly guessed the weight of Geney’s big pumpkin last year at the supermarket where Geney works and triumphantly carted the great sphere home to carve a heavy-duty jack o’ lantern.
Allison says many of the fat fruit are donated to schools and hospitals.
Clearly, the popularity of growing giant pumpkins flourishes on the connection between the plant world and the human impulse toward rejuvenation, reincarnation, and reproduction. Geney started his first pumpkin to celebrate the birth of his granddaughter and to start a tradition of big pumpkins for the child each Halloween. Allison is on no small crusade to connect people to the earth in an age that grows ever more synthetic.
“It’s the closest a guy can come to having a baby,” says van der Kamp, comparing nine months of pumpkin care to nine months of labor. “You don’t just plant seeds and walk away.”
From the February 27-March 5, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent
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