Howard Dill is a giant among giant pumpkin growers. He grew four consecutive world champion pumpkins from 1979 to 1982 and missed winning the fifth year by a mere 5 pounds. Today, his patented Dill Atlantic Giant seeds are sold worldwide to more than 50 seed companies, and the progeny commonly weigh in at over 1000 pounds. "I don't have any training in genetics; it was all trial and error," Dill says. He has been passionate about growing "punkins" for years, a fondness he inherited from his father.
Growing a giant pumpkin is one thing, but showing it off in competitions is quite another. Dill has shipped numerous giant pumpkins from his farm in Nova Scotia to events in Canada and the U.S. He perfected the art of pumpkin packing by building his own heavy duty crates. Sometimes a pumpkin's arrival has created quite a commotion. News stations in San Francisco were on hand to witness a giant's arrival in that city. It took awhile for the sturdy shipping crate to be opened, contributing to a reporter's observation that Canadian crates were better built than many U.S. houses.
"I have to make them tough enough to withstand front-end loaders," Dill explains. Another giant took four hours to clear customs in Chicago because drug enforcement agents were called in. Evidently no one believed a carton that big could contain nothing but a pumpkin. One of his giants was a morale booster for troops during the Persian Gulf War and another graced the White House for Halloween. One giant was consumed in the form of 442 pumpkin pies, sold at $5 each for charity.
Dill still grows giants but not for competition. In fall, visitors come to enjoy the pumpkin patch on his 90-acre farm, which has been in the family for five generations. He plants 10 acres in pumpkins for Halloween and two acres in giants. The farm also is the home of Long Pond where the game of hockey reputedly originated in Canada in the 1800s, so the place has become quite a tourist attraction. Dill's favorite pumpkin set the Guiness Book Record in 1991, weighing 493.5 pounds. "I've grown them larger since, but that one meant a lot," he recalls. "I never would have predicted 10 years ago that there would be a 1000-pounder, but there are many of them now," comments Dill. The 2002 world record holder is Charlie Houghton of New Hampshire who grew a 1337.6 pounder. "These world champions are grown from my seed, so I feel like a winner right along with them."
If you want to try your green thumb at growing a giant pumpkin, Dill recommends starting with a soil analysis. Pumpkins prefer a soil pH ranging from 6.5 to 7. Add whatever amendments the test recommends, as well as plenty of organic matter, such as compost or manure. It's essential to sow seeds that have the genetic ability to become giants -- you can't grow a thousand-pounder from a regular Jack-O-Lantern variety. Giants take 130 days to maturity, so plan accordingly.
"Allow plenty of space between plants, at least 25 to 35 feet, because the vines need room to grow," says Dill. The giants seem best adapted to cool growing climates, such as Washington, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, northern California, and, of course, Canada. If you live where summer temperatures are in the 90s, provide shade cover for both the vine and the pumpkin to reduce stress. A giant pumpkin can gain 15 to 20 pounds a day, so careful watering --every day or two -- is essential. As Dill says, "To grow a good pumpkin you have to have a good plant behind it."
Giant pumpkin weigh-offs are held annually on the first Saturday in October at various sites in the U.S. and Canada. For sites near you, check out The Pumpkin Patch Web site at http://www.backyardgardener.com/gpc.html.
For more information on Howard Dill's Atlantic Giant variety, go to the Dill's Atlantic Giant Web site: http://www.howarddill.com/index.html.
Article published on June 23, 2008.