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How to grow giant pumpkins: Advice from two SLO County growers

Randy Pharr with the giant pumpkin he is growing at his Templeton home.
Photo by Joe Johnston 09-29-15
Randy Pharr with the giant pumpkin he is growing at his Templeton home. Photo by Joe Johnston 09-29-15 jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The world’s record for heaviest pumpkin goes to Switzerland grower Beni Meier, whose pumpkin last year tipped the scales at a whopping 2,323 pounds.

But that doesn’t stop local growers like Randy Pharr and Rick Tibben from trying to squash it, or at least break a smaller, though still respectable, local record.

They spend months in their own pumpkin patches, preparing the soil, pollinating the plants, pruning the vines, selecting the pumpkins that seem poised to grow the most — and then nurturing them carefully until harvest.

“A lot of my friends think I’m crazy for doing this,” Pharr, 55, said. “But it’s a lot of fun, exciting and keeps me out of trouble.”

Pharr’s dedication this year once again paid off. On Thursday night, the Templeton general contractor and handyman walked away the winner for the third year in a row in Farm Supply’s 10th annual Central Coast Great Pumpkin & Scarecrow Contest held at San Luis Obispo Farmers Market.

His pumpkin weighed 739 pounds, and his smile was as wide as his massive orange fruit when he won the $750 first-place prize. His previous prize-winning pumpkins in 2013 and 2014 weighed 890 and 723 pounds, respectively.

His winning strategy?

“Soil preparation, vine pruning and fruit selection.” And horse manure, added his wife Rhonda Speer.

The most difficult part, Pharr said, is dealing with the heat variations in the North County because it gets super hot during the day and cool at night, stressing the plants. “They tend to like a more moderate temperature.” Insects and diseases such as powdery mold also can take a toll.

Tibben, a retired safety engineer/manager who lives in Nipomo, is equally dedicated. He snared second place this year with a 578-pound pumpkin, second place last year with a 297-pound pumpkin and third place in 2013 with a 394-pound pumpkin.

Tibben began entering the local competition, which is open to growers in San Luis Obispo County and northern Santa Barbara County, 10 years ago. At the time, he ran part of the Nipomo Octoberfest and had 17 giant pumpkins on display, Tibben recalled.

“Someone gave me a seed. I grew a 246-pound pumpkin and made the mistake of saying to myself that I could do better than that.”

Through the years, he has encouraged children at nearby Dana Elementary School as well as neighborhood kids to drop by and see his pumpkins grow. “It’s a tremendous amount of work and expense, but I worked with kids for more than 55 years and love making them happy.”

This year will be his last, however.

At 72, “my body is not what it used to be and with the drought I cannot see growing something that you cannot eat.”

Both Tibben and Pharr have big gardens, donating much of the produce to various organizations.

Drought limits entries

This year, only 21 pumpkins were entered in the Farm Supply contest’s various categories, down from 31 last year and about 70 in 2013, according to Cara Crye, vice president of communications for Farm Supply who organizes the event.

And the number of entries in the “heavies,’’ as the great pumpkin contest is called, is down to only 13 this year, compared to 14 last year and more than 30 in 2013, she said.

The ongoing drought is to blame, she said.

Given the fewer entries, organizers have considered whether to halt the contest for awhile, Crye said, but after consulting all involved, they decided to keep going and add a few other competitions such as scarecrows and pumpkin carving.

The pumpkin contest is a “great way to educate the community about agriculture,” she added.

When they’ve set up his display at farmers market, Pharr said, “People walk by and say ‘Oh those aren’t real’ until they walk up to touch it and say OMG.”

Test your ‘great pumpkin’ knowledge

Tribune photographers Joe Johnston and David Middlecamp asked local growers Randy Pharr and Rick Tibben to share the most common questions they’re asked — and their answers.

Q. How many pumpkin pies does it make?

Tibben: None. Atlantic Giant pumpkin “meat” is not good for pumpkin pies. (I tried and threw the pie out).

Q. How thick are the pumpkin’s walls?

Pharr: Sometimes on a smooth pumpkin, the wall may only be 4 to 5 inches, but on the blossom end and the stem end it could be up to 10 to 12 inches thick. Now when you have a pumpkin that is actually ribbed out and cantalouped, sometimes it’ll be 10 inches to 12 inches all the way around.

Tibben: They can be over a foot thick.

Q. How much water do they take?

Tibben: Pumpkins are 80 percent water so they need a good amount of water. I have made my soil such that it holds water very well.

Q. How fast do they grow or how long does it take to grow?

Pharr: In general, by the time the female flower is pollinated, it takes about 100 to 120 days from pollination to full maturity. So you can expect anywhere from, in the beginning, just a little bit of weight to come on, and at the maximum time, when they really want to grow, you can be looking at up to 17 to 20 pounds per day.

Tibben: I give my pumpkins 5 1/2 to 6 months to grow, and once they reach a large size they can put on 20 to 30 pounds a day (if you are lucky).

Q. How big does the plant get?

A. The plant actually will take up about 450 square feet, depending on how you trim it and how you take care of it. We’re not trying to grow a salad here. We’re trying to grow a pumpkin. So we kind of got to limit the leaf growth to the fruit growth. So, we’ll kind of cut the leaf growth off and put the energy toward the fruit growth so we can get the big pumpkin that we want. (Pharr)

Tibben: I usually let mine get 25 feet in diameter. My biggest leaves have been 27 inches across.

Q. How do you lift or move it?

Pharr: Moving is kind of fun. I bring my friends over and we have a tarp and so we’ll tuck it underneath it. We’ll roll it up on one side, and we’ll tuck it up, then roll it on the other side, we’ll pick it up and we’ll put it on a pallet. I have a neighbor who comes with a forklift and we’ll put it on the truck or trailer and take it down there on the day of the contest.

Tibben: I don’t. I get the kids from Nipomo High School to do it. I have had the football team and water polo team do it, but now I depend on the agricultural students and friends and neighbors.

Q. How many seeds are inside?

Tibben: Hundreds. For world record pumpkins, seeds can cost up to $1,000 per seed. Seems like the bigger the pumpkin, there are fewer seeds inside.

Q. What do you do with the pumpkins after the contest?

Pharr: Normally we take them out to a friend of mine’s place in Pozo, and I pull the seeds out. I fill them with water and we blow them up. And they scatter. That way the wildlife can eat them.

Tibben: I put them on my driveway as part of my Halloween decorations, then chop them up and give them to neighbors for their goats and pigs, and compost any leftover.

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