Follow the healthy green vines behind Jack Bacheler’s house, and you’ll see it: the great, big pumpkin.
It’s not bright orange like Charlie Brown’s fantastical gourd, but it might be just as big. Bacheler figures 700 pounds or so.
His backyard, in a rural neighborhood on the north side of Clayton, was home to three giant pumpkins earlier this summer; one of those took sixth place at the Yadkin Valley Great Pumpkin Contest in September. He gave the other to his son, who is using it in a festival in Hillsborough.
This last pumpkin, grown from a seed with 1,700-pound forefathers, is destined for the N.C. State Fair, where Bacheler won first place last year.
A retired N.C. State University entomologist, Bacheler’s attempts at growing large fruits started several years ago, when he and his brother, Bill, had annual tomato-growing contests. In 2010, Bacheler tried his first giant pumpkins, not on a farm but in a square-shaped plot in his backyard.
“The first place I’d always go at the State Fair was the pumpkins,” he said.
He didn’t have much success the first two years, when groundhogs “eliminated” his crop. So he built a fence around his growing area to keep the rodents out.
In 2013, after skipping a summer vacation to tend to his garden, Bacheler’s State Fair champion pumpkin weighed in at 799.6 pounds. It wasn’t a bad start.
Where does any quest to grow a giant pumpkin begin? At an auction, of course.
On Internet chat rooms and message boards, growers bid for seeds from some of the largest pumpkins raised around the world. A giant pumpkin can have hundreds of seeds, and on sites like BigPumpkins.com, Bacheler and others can vie for the best lots available.
Pumpkin-growing clubs sponsor most of the seed auctions and use the profits to pay for cash prizes at weigh-offs they host during the year, said Ken Desrosiers, a Connecticut man who runs BigPumpkins.com.
“I’ve seen some clubs make $10,000 in one night from selling seeds and auctioning them off,” Desrosiers said. “It takes money from the growers, but it keeps it in the hobby.”
The auctions represent one aspect of a giant-pumpkin community that also shares ideas and tips, both online and at the many festivals held each fall in the United States and abroad.
The Great Pumpkin Commonwealth sets the rules growers must follow to be eligible for more than 100 sanctioned weigh-offs. In North Carolina, the GPC sanctions weigh-offs at the Yadkin Valley Great Pumpkin Contest and the State Fair.
“You’d suspect these growers to be secretive, but they are all pretty open,” Bacheler said.
April to October
Each year, Bacheler plants three to four times the number of pumpkins he’ll end up with in the fall.
This year, for instance, he planted 13 seeds but transferred only the nine best plants to his garden. After the vines of each pumpkin grew to about 8-10 feet, he whittled the group of nine to three.
“Sometimes they can make the decision easier for you, because the plant doesn’t look too well,” Bacheler said. “Other times, it can be more difficult.”
The planting starts in April and early May, and as the pumpkins grow, so do the vines that provide the abundant nutrients and energy that the large plants require. In a black and white composition book, Bacheler keeps a highly technical log of each pumpkin’s growth.
A pumpkin that grows too quickly can tear, eliminating it from a weigh-in. At the same time, a pumpkin growing too slowly won’t mature in time to be competitive. By tracking each pumpkin’s progress, Bacheler can remove vines or allow them to grow, controlling how much energy each plant receives.
Giant pumpkins grown in the Southeast are typically smaller than those raised in other parts of the nation. A lot of that has to do with weather, as the summer temperatures and humidity in North Carolina aren’t ideal for pumpkins. That means Bacheler and other Southern growers have to work hard to keep the plants cool.
Bacheler said during the summer, he spends at least three hours a day with the pumpkins. That means he has to miss the family vacations.
“I just go without him,” his wife, Pat, joked.
Pat said she helps out during the spring, before the plants go in the ground. After that she leaves it to the “scientist in Jack,” to take things over.
“It’s fun seeing how much the pumpkins really weigh,” she said. “I could care less about the blogs and the measurements, but he’s the scientist so he loves that type of thing.”
Getting it out
It’s hard enough for Bacheler to maneuver around his big pumpkins to get measurements, let alone take them out of the garden for a weigh-off. It takes a Bobcat work machine to lift up the nearly half-ton pumpkins, which are then placed in the bed of a pick-up truck.
After weigh-offs, Bacheler said some pumpkins go to other competitions. He and some friends have also talked about putting a pumpkin in the woods with cameras, to see if any critters showed interest in the large gourd.
Bacheler, a Michigan native, earned his doctorate from the University of Florida in 1972, before moving to North Carolina to work at N.C. State.
A former world-class runner who competed in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, he is no newcomer to competition. Pumpkin weigh-offs are a little different, but he’s hopeful his State Fair entry will place well yet again.
Based on measurements, he feels good about it.
“It could go heavy, but you can’t count on that,” Bacheler said. “You never know.”