Ed Dennis is not your typical gardener.
The 750-square-foot plot in his backyard in Highland was dedicated to just one plant this year: a pumpkin.
On Saturday, Dennis saw the culmination of nearly six months of toiling in the dirt as his prized pumpkin was hoisted by a fork lift and gently placed on a digital scale at this year’s Utah Giant Pumpkin Growers Weigh Off.
Calculations based on the size of the pumpkin indicated it would be somewhere in the mid-900-pound range, but whether Dennis could break the 1,000-pound mark was up in the air.
“You just never know until you put it on the scale,” Dennis said.
This was Dennis’ fifth year growing giant pumpkins, and each year he’s steadily improved. He’s about doubled the size of his pumpkins every year, growing one in 2014 that weighed in at 432 pounds.
“Obviously the first few years we really didn’t know what we were doing,” he said.
While growing vegetables of any kind requires a bit of attention to detail, growing a giant pumpkin takes the science to another level.
This year’s adventure began with soil preparation in March. In mid-April, Dennis began germinating a pumpkin seed from the Atlantic Giant variety. Soaked in a mix of water, seaweed and hydrogen peroxide, the seed was placed on a hot pad and kept at 85 degrees for a couple days until it sprouted.
The seed was then placed in high-quality potting soil, along with special bacterias and seaweed to stimulate root growth. A grow light illuminated the sprout for 16 to 18 hours a day. Once the sprout’s first true leaf showed, it was transferred to a hoop house in the garden, where heating coils keep the soil at exactly 75 degrees.
Dennis said there’s not much visible action for the first month while the plant spreads and the root system develops. A mix of soil, fungicide and fertilizer is used to bury the vines to help grow more roots.
On May 17, Dennis cross pollinated one of his plant’s female blossoms with pellet from another grower’s male blossom. About 15 days later was when the pumpkin began to grow quite aggressively, Dennis said. From days 25 through 40, the pumpkin really started to explode.
“Over that 15- to 16-day window it gained over 500 pounds,” Dennis said. “So it was averaging a little over 32 pounds per day. And there were a few days where it gained over 40 pounds.”
Dennis, who works as a CPA in Salt Lake City, would get home from work and marvel at how much bigger the pumpkin had gotten
since he left that morning.
“It’s just unbelievable how fast it can grow,” he said.
After work, Dennis would strap a headlamp on his head and go spend some time tending to the plant.
“You’re with it just about every day. In fact, it was difficult even to go on vacation,” he said.
Dennis and his wife Laurel did take a four-day vacation in August, but they had a friend come over and fertilize and spray insecticide and fungicide every day while they were gone.
Insects and fungus are big problems for giant pumpkins, Dennis said, so they use insecticide and fungicide aggressively. There’s no effort to grow the plants organically because they wouldn’t be good to eat at that size anyway.
On the day before the Weigh Off, Dennis enlisted the help of a friend and his fork lift to remove the pumpkin from the garden.
“We’ve never had one big enough that we had to have a piece of equipment to lift it,” Dennis said.
His stress was apparent as the giant pumpkin was slowly lifted off the ground using a specially made pumpkin lifting ring and straps.
The next morning, Dennis towed his giant pumpkin on a trailer to the 11th annual Utah Giant Pumpkin Growers Weigh Off at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi. There it sat next to other giant pumpkins, ready for it’s turn on the scales.
When the time came, Dennis stood with his wife, daughter and grandchildren and waited for the pumpkin’s number to be revealed.
It weighed in at 953 pounds. Dennis threw a fist in the air, but his celebration was restrained.
“We’re pleased that it was that big. It was a little lighter than we’d hoped, but that’s still really good,” he said.
Dennis said hitting 1,000 pounds is the mark of a good grower, and he would really like to crest that mark.
“I’m relieved,” he said. “I really can’t be disappointed with a 950-pound pumpkin.”
Dennis acknowledged not everybody would want to sink the kind of time, energy and money he spent on his pumpkin to grow something that you can’t eat in the end.
He said the reward is not only the satisfaction of having refined the skills necessary to grow such a huge plant, it’s also the camaraderie between growers and the time he gets to spend with his family.
“My whole family enjoys it. My two daughters both grow pumpkins, so my wife and I work on this one,” Dennis said. “And our grandkids love it. That’s what really keeps us growing.”
Dennis said the other growers in Utah are a fascinating and diverse group of people. They aren’t protective of their methods — seasoned growers don’t hesitate to help out the new guys.
“I haven’t found a pumpkin grower who I don’t like,” Dennis said. “They’re all just a lot of fun to be around.”
Before his pumpkin had even been lifted off the scale, Dennis said he was already mentally planning for next year’s grow.