North Carolina Farmer Grows Giant Varieties of Produce
There are more than 45 varieties of pumpkins, but many people are only acquainted with those seen on display at the store or while perusing the local pumpkin patch. These standard kinds can easily be scooped up in your arms and carried to the car. But there are a few that require a little more elbow grease to get from one place to another.
Mammoth pumpkin varieties can weigh in at 500 pounds or more. Some tip the scales at close to 1,000 pounds – with a few climbing even higher than that. The North American weight record currently stands at a jaw-dropping 2,323.7 pounds.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that you have to be willing to pour a lot of blood, sweat and tears into growing a pumpkin that large. Fortunately for the residents of Chapel Hill, there’s a North Carolina farmer who isn’t afraid of a little hard work when it comes to cultivating giant produce.
Sam Jenkins, who grows giant produce on his farm in Pittsboro, can tell you he isn’t afraid of a little hard work when it comes to cultivating these impressive crops.
Reaching Great Heights
Jenkins has always had a garden and took an early interest in giant produce, albeit from a surprisingly unique source.
“Back in the 1970s, the Allman Brothers had an album called ‘Eat A Peach,'” Jenkins says. “The cover featured a giant peach and a giant watermelon in the bed of a pickup truck. I always thought that was wild, and that image really stuck with me.”
Jenkins also grew up with farming in his blood.
“My great-grandfather had two tobacco farms,” Jenkins says. “I found out years later that he used to deliver watermelons and cantaloupes to people who didn’t have much to eat during the Great Depression.”
Jenkins’ garden resumé includes giant watermelons, giant sunflowers and giant corn, which tower over the yard at an impressive 15 to 16 feet tall. But giant pumpkins hold a special place in his heart.
As you can probably imagine, you need a substantial amount of space to grow these mammoth pumpkins. Jenkins plants a type called the Atlantic Giant, which can reach staggering weights and develop vines as long as a bowling lane.
“I once grew a pumpkin that was 60 feet by 40 feet,” Jenkins says. “I culled 550 pumpkins off the vine of that single plant. Each one was the size of a softball. If you make a circle with your arms, you’ll get an idea of the size of the leaves.”
Despite weighing anywhere from 500 to more than 1,000 pounds, most of these pumpkins are only grown for about six months before their owners take them to county and state fairs for giant produce competitions. Jenkins says they put on weight so quickly that you can almost watch them grow.
“Some of these pumpkins can gain up to 50 pounds per day,” he says.
Reaping the Rewards
There’s a science to growing such massive produce, but Jenkins says it’s the backyard gardeners who are breaking the world records. With enough room and time to commit to this lofty goal, anyone with a little extra space in their backyard could have great success – or at least great fun.
But once the pumpkins are fully grown, there’s still more work to be done. Consider transportation, for example. How do you transport the enormous produce to enter a giant pumpkin competition? Many growers utilize forklifts and pumpkin rings, but some get creative and make a tripod with a 2-ton hoist lift (commonly used to move engines) to get the pumpkin from the garden to a truck bed.
Six months is a long time to invest heavily into growing one plant, but Jenkins loves the challenge. He enjoys seeing children’s reactions when they lay eyes on the largest pumpkins they’ve ever seen. He’s also donated the giant pumpkin seeds from his prize winners to be auctioned off to raise money for the N.C. Vegetable Growers Association.
“If you want to start growing giant pumpkins, you need three things: good seeds, good weather and good luck,” Jenkins says.
It doesn’t hurt to ask for advice from the professionals either.
“There are so many people in this space who are willing to share their knowledge and help out the newcomers,” says Jenkins, who encourages new gardeners to try growing a mammoth variety or two. “There are several unique vegetables you can grow this way, and it’s a genuinely rewarding experience.”
– Kayla Walden
Editor’s note: A previous edition of this story misstated the size of the state record giant watermelon. Andrew Vial set the record at 341.5 pounds at a competition in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2019.