When Joe Scherber tells you his pumpkin patch produced just three pumpkins this year, it sounds like his crop was a bust. But together those three pumpkins weigh over 2,220 pounds, making the Wheat Ridge dentist one of the most fruitful pumpkin growers in the nation.
Scherber raises massive pumpkins for thrills, prize money and satisfaction. "It's a serious effort," he says, "and a stupid endeavor that really has no overall importance beyond being entertaining."
But this is entertainment on a grand scale: freak-show agriculture in which amateur gardeners raise thousand-pound-plus, bumper-to-bumper crops that they haul to contests on flatbed trailers and in truck beds. "People like to garden because it's fun to grow stuff, right?" Scherber asks, by way of explaining his passion. "What could be funner than growing something this big? It's great entertainment for the person growing it, and there's a lot of shock value when anybody sees it. People see these things and ask the same questions: 'Is that a pumpkin?' 'Is that real?' 'How do you do that?'"
In 2000, Scherber set the state record with a whopping 1,009.2-pound pumpkin. Although pumpkins (members of the cucurbita genus and technically squash) weighing over a thousand pounds have become more common in recent years, they're typically grown in northern coastal climes where cooler temperatures, higher humidity and longer growing seasons help the fruits reach a massive size. (Temperatures above 90 degrees lead to cracked pumpkins and aborted blooms.)
"Joe Scherber is, without doubt, the top giant-pumpkin grower in his state," says Hugh Wiberg, a Massachusetts grower and spokesman for the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, a collective that runs pumpkin weigh-ins across the U.S. and Canada. "He has somehow found a way to overcome the heat problem in Colorado."
According to Wiberg, pumpkin contests date back to the country fairs of the late 1800s; they reached their peak around 1910, before fading with the onset of World War I and the Depression. In the '70s, Howard Dill returned the giant pumpkin to the forefront of the public consciousness with hybridized heavyweights that he grew on his farm in Nova Scotia. His first 300- and 400-pounders broke records, opened new possibilities for growers and put pumpkin weigh-ins back on the map.
In 1981, Dill secured the patent for his Atlantic Giant strain. While today's growers chase prize money and bragging rights, he created Atlantic Giant for a simpler reason. "People like to see big things; it makes them a bit happy and puts a smile on their face," says 68-year-old Dill. "I always say, 'The bigger the pumpkin, the happier people seem to be.'"
During the Gulf War, the Canadian government flew one of Dill's pumpkins from Halifax to the Persian Gulf. "It went from the Canadian warships to American warships as a morale booster," Dill says. "It was a big hit. You always like to do things that encourage the people serving your country."
But Dill has also turned his hobby into a highly successful business. He estimates that over two million gardeners around the world planted his Atlantic Giant seeds this year, and his efforts have landed him in Biography Magazine, National Geographic and countless other media. Today he devotes himself to improving his strain and producing seeds for sale, leaving the competitions to his pumpkin-headed followers. "I feel like a winner, anyway, because they're all being grown from the Dill's line of seeds," he explains.
Competitive pumpkin growers can be less charitable. "There's some money involved, so it can get kind of chippy," Scherber says. In 1996, a man in upstate New York won a $50,000 prize by growing the first thousand-pound Giant. Today the GPC distributes about $14,000 annually to winners of its 22 sanctioned weigh-ins; first-place pumpkins can earn a couple grand through state prizes and sponsorships.
Scherber got into competitive pumpkin growing after seeing a patient's photo of himself sitting in a 400-pound pumpkin. Four years later, when he grew his own 300-pounder, Scherber "decided to start taking it seriously. I ripped out the back yard, basically, and got my square footage. At the time, I was single and could get away with it. There wasn't anybody that wanted to take me to counseling or anything."
Square footage is key for Giants, which require a minimum of 600 square feet per plant. Scherber uses go-for-broke gardening that leaves a single bloom on each plant, to concentrate the energy; he enriches his soil with manure and buries vines to encourage root growth and get more juice into the plant's lone fruit. He also shelters his Giants with cloth to protect them from Colorado's blazing sun. But ultimately, you have to trust in the "pumpkin gods" and fate, he says: "It's like pulling the handle on a slot machine. You don't know if you're gonna get lucky or not. I can grow four of the same seeds and get a real range in what I get."
In 1997, Scherber got a 746-pounder that set the Colorado pumpkin record and won the GPC contest in Anamosa, Iowa -- the Midwest's toughest pumpkin weigh-in. Three years later, he squashed his own state mark with the 1,009-pound monster (a female, as all pumpkins are) that had to be lifted out of his garden with a construction crane.
In competition, pumpkins are judged not just on their weight, but on GPC standards of appearance. Cracks through to the pumpkin's core or too much green in its complexion can get the fruit of one's labor disqualified. "You're kind of a second-class citizen if they tell you the thing you've been growing all year is squash," Scherber says.
The Web site for Wiberg's club (www.bigpumpkins.com) holds a wealth of information on raising Giants, from technical advice to tips on surviving the contest culture. "It has happened more than once," one tip advises, "where a large pumpkin has been stolen or vandalized. Under no circumstances should you ever tell the news media of an impending champion pumpkin when it is still in your garden."
The hobby is growing as fast as the fruit it celebrates. "It's a horticultural phenomenon that's in its early stages right now," Wiberg says. "The lure, very simply, is the mammoth size these vegetables are achieving and the fact that the weights are going up every year." The new world-record-holder, a 1,337-pound shocker grown this season in Massachusetts, "is the largest vegetable or fruit ever grown on the planet."
For Scherber, creating such monsters can be a burden -- in more ways than one. After growing his record-breaker in 2000, "I was a little burned out," he says. "I knew I had gotten a little lucky, and I didn't think I had a chance to beat my personal best." His 760.5-pound pumpkin placed ninth in the Anamosa weigh-in this year.
But the person he's really out to beat is himself. "I want to grow one bigger than what I've grown," Scherber says. "The genes are getting better in these things, and I'm in it for the long haul. So I know I'll be growing a 1,200-pound pumpkin one year.
"They still shock me," he adds. "Even having been around the sport for years, it's kind of hard to believe that they actually get as big and weigh as much as they do."
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