The great pumpkin: Ontario growers have 2016 hit-or-miss success

Growing a giant pumpkin takes a lot of work, but Ontario growers say it's worth long as the pumpkins survive.

'It’s a lot of work for a hobby,' grower says

Ryan Hoelke of Eganville, Ont., took aerial photos of his three pumpkins this summer using a GoPro camera. (Ryan Hoelke/Submitted photo)

Ryan Hoelke admits his hobby might seem a little odd.

"It's insane is what it is," the Eganville, Ont., man said of growing giant pumpkins.

And by giant, we're not talking about really big pumpkins for jack-o-lanterns.

We're talking more than 680 kg (1,500 lbs) massive pumpkins that you need farm equipment to lift. A pumpkin close to the size of a Smart Car.

"They're 14 inches thick, so you'd need a pretty long knife" to carve them, Hoelke said with a laugh.

The man, who also has his own woodworking business, is among many across the country who grow giant vegetables for fun and competition. Pumpkins get a lot of attention and are often seen at agricultural fairs, but people also grow other gourds, squash, carrots and cabbage.

For Hoelke, it all started when his dad found some regular jack-o-lantern pumpkin seeds at the store.

"At some point, I just started to try to grow them bigger and bigger and bigger," Hoelke recalled. Then he found giant pumpkin seeds and in high school, was growing 300 kg to 360 kg (700 to 800 lbs) pumpkins.

He took a break in university, but once he had his own home with a yard, he started his garden.

'A lot of work for a hobby'

Hoelke cultivates three plants, and forces each vine to focus on only one pumpkin. So other flower buds are picked off early to prevent multiple gourds.

Many giant vegetable growers use tarpaulins to keep the pumpkins off the ground and protect the gourds from too much moisture and pests.

"It's a lot of work for a hobby," Hoelke said.

During the hot summer, Hoelke relied on an automatic watering system, so his pumpkins did not suffer from being too dry.

It becomes this sort of game and it's hard to get out of once you start.- Giant pumpkin grower Ryan Hoelke

"I could control the water. I have a drip tubing system where it has about 500 emitters per plant and it drips slowly," he said. "I could water when I needed to."

To keep pests at bay, he sprayed the plants, wearing a backpack with the insecticide, "so that also looks completely crazy."

With the drop in temperature, he also covers his plants at night.

"Right now in the cool weather, I'll cover the plants at nights with blankets and you hope nobody sees you," he said.

2016 hit or miss for growers

Hoelke said this has been one of his best years, and that is also true for Chris Lyons of Scarborough. He grows his pumpkins on property in Cameron, Ont.

"After 25 years I am finally getting the results that I have always hoped to achieve growing at my friends', Phil and Jane Hunt," Lyons said. The Hunts are well known in the giant vegetable growing world and are members of the Giant Vegetable Growers of Ontario (GVGO) executive committee.
Ryan Hoelke placed a bottle on one of his pumpkins to give people a sense of just how big his giant pumpkin is. (Ryan Hoelke/Submitted photo)

"I've been really lucky the last two years, I haven't lost any. The years before, I did. I had about three or four years that were pretty disappointing," Lyons said.

"You put so much into it. The amount of time and money you put into them, you can take it once and awhile but when you do it every year and it's always your biggest one …," he said, trailing off.

His friends, the Hunts, did not fare well this year.

"Pumpkins all split on us. Once they have a hole in it, it's no good for a weigh off," Jane Hunt said in an email. "Maybe better luck next year."

Seeds the key

Many growers take their huge produce to nearby fairs to have them weighed and – with luck – win a ribbon. But after that?

"What do you do with a 1,500 pound pumpkin? It's not the easiest thing to move around or give to somebody," Hoelke said.

In the past he has given them to people for boat races, and he's also held a fundraiser with a local store: Ballots were put inside the pumpkin, it was then hoisted up and dropped to the ground. A winning entry was plucked from the mush.
Chris Lyons of Scarborough grows his giant pumpkins on a friend's property. He said this summer was a great one for him, but he's also had summers where he's lost all his giant gourds. (Chris Lyons/Submitted photo)


For anyone interested in growing a giant pumpkin, Hoelke recommends joining a group like the GVGO to get tips and advice from those who have experience at growing giant gourds.

"That's your biggest start, you need a good seed," he said.

And then, you get addicted – you want to see if small changes get you bigger pumpkins.

"It becomes this sort of game and it's hard to get out of once you start," he added.


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