Human interest: From a tiny seed, a great gourd grows

Published in the Boston Globe, October 21, 2007

From a tiny seed, a great gourd grows
Norton 16-year-old nurses a giant pumpkin for fall weigh-off

By Lori Hein, Globe Correspondent/ October 21, 2007

Before dawn on Oct. 6, a group gathered in 16-year-old Alex Noel's yard in Norton to lift a gargantuan pumpkin into a truck, the first leg of its journey to the Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off at Frerichs Farm in Warren, R.I.

It was the day Alex had worked for since April. To guide a pumpkin from mortal to titanic proportions requires spending lots of time with it, nurturing it (on cold days, Alex wrapped it in a blue baby blanket), and tending to the 50-odd vines that together form a single giant pumpkin plant.

His motivating mantra on tough days: "World record, world record."

And then off to judgment day at Frerichs.

At day's end, Alex's 1,224-pound pumpkin placed not first, but a respectable sixth. His 903-pound giant squash did take a blue ribbon. Together the ponderous pair of gourds earned Alex $500 and a handful of medals and trophies - and further recognition in the world of giant vegetable producers.

Alex started growing giant pumpkins at age 12. He had, the year before, been inspired by monster produce he saw during a visit to the Topsfield Fair. His first giant pumpkin tipped the Topsfield scales at 370 pounds, and he was hooked. Each year since, Alex has grown progressively larger vegetables - except for 2006, when he used a chemical spray he described as "a big accident - I killed all my plants."

When Alex started growing giants, he would spend every available minute in the pumpkin patch, forgoing extracurricular activities at The Wheeler School in Providence, where he's a junior. "You spend all your time with it," he said of his first giant. "No sports. You just come home and be with the pumpkin."

Now, as an experienced grower, Alex can afford some nonpumpkin activities. He worked part time this summer at Sharon's Moose Hill Community Farm, and he's playing fall football at Wheeler. "I know all the basics and a lot of the particulars," he said, "so when I'm with the pumpkin, I'll be doing some task, not just muddling around."

But it still takes a lot of time. "The end of June is toughest. I was spending eight hours a day in the patch."

July requires about six hours of daily labor, early August four or five, and late August and September, if all is well and the orb has mushroomed into a robust behemoth, one or two hours daily. On its peak growing day, which occurs in August, a giant pumpkin can gain 60 pounds. As picking time nears, if nights are warm, it can pack on 10 pounds a day.

Alex sows his pumpkin seeds in April in an indoor germination box. A few sprouts declare themselves early as having the wherewithal to go all the way to greatness, and Alex devotes the next five months to these plants.

A pumpkin in the 1,200- to 1,300-pound range - like his entry this fall - is indeed considered world class, he said, "and bringing it the extra couple of hundred pounds you need to make world record is more or less luck. And you have to make zero mistakes." Rhode Island's mistake-free Joe Jutras set the current pumpkin record, 1,689 pounds, last month at Topsfield.

Over the course of raising his giants, Alex's patch can yield odd sights: When the pumpkin was wrapped in its blue baby blanket, it looked much like a large child asleep in the sea of leaves. Passersby stare at Alex, in rubber gloves and gas mask, applying pesticide or Alex working at night under a spotlight, headlamp on, flashlight in hand."They'll just stare," he said. "This must be one of those things that people think it's OK to stare at."

Giant pumpkin growers are an agricultural brotherhood. They meet online, at pumpkin club get-togethers - Alex belongs to three clubs and is a director of one - and in each other's patches to exchange tips. Norton grower Don Langevin, an expert who has published books on giants, has shared his pumpkin wisdom with Alex over the years.

Growers routinely trade proven seeds from giant pumpkins that have produced other progeny - sister seeds - that spawned giants. Serious growers generally sow only proven seeds. Alex stockpiles promising ones and has several thousand in his room. He's proud that the seed for this year's giant came from a 720-pounder he grew in 2005. Alex trusted the seed's pedigree because last year, before the killer chemical incident, he'd coaxed a seed from the same pumpkin to impressive heft.

Alex grew a second giant this year, from an unproven seed donated by an Ohio grower who had statistically calculated it to be, according to Alex, "the best seed in the world, on paper at least." Alex had room in his patch, so he gave the seed a go.It grew like crazy until August, when it developed a split, disqualifying it from the Topsfield and Frerichs weigh-offs. Alex picked it early and took it to the Marshfield Fair, where rules require only that the pumpkin be "sound." At 1,054 pounds, 14 shy of the winner, it took second place and earned Alex $400.

Each year after the fall weigh-off, Alex transforms his pumpkin into a jumbo jack-o'-lantern at his Barrows Street home. "I try to do a better, more elaborate carving every year," he said. "People love it."

After Halloween, when his creation gets mushy and starts to collapse, Alex takes an axe and chops it into 40-pound chunks, which, he said, "rot away and make really good compost." He'll use those bits of pumpkin past to help next year's patch bear enormous fruit.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company