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Pumped up

With pumpkin put at 1,878 pounds and counting, Sharon grower stakes hopes on a world record

Essdras M Suarez/Globe StaffSteve Connolly nurtured this pumpkin from seed to its current estimated weight of 1,878 pounds. Essdras M Suarez/Globe StaffSteve Connolly nurtured this pumpkin from seed to its current estimated weight of 1,878 pounds. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / October 3, 2008
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SHARON - Darkness and fog shrouded the ranch houses receding into the inky blackness of this forested suburb. Standing in the damp grass of a field, wearing galoshes, shorts, and a long-sleeved T-shirt, Steve Connolly held aloft a portable work lamp, brilliantly illuminating an otherworldly orange orb that looked as though it had crash-landed in his yard.

For five months, he has slaked its thirst with a garden hose, shaded it from the sun with a cotton sheet, kept off the rain with a plastic tarp. He regularly fed it an exotic recipe of ground bone, blood, fish, molasses, and cow and chicken manure. Now more than 16 feet around and weighing an estimated 1,878 pounds, it is packing on 11 pounds a day.

In a week, when he loads it on a truck and takes it to Frerichs Farm in Warren R.I., Connolly hopes it will be the biggest pumpkin the world has ever seen, smashing the record of 1,689 pounds and possibly coming in at more than a ton, an accomplishment that is to competitive pumpkin growing what the 4-minute mile was to track and field.

Connolly and his leviathan are products of a hobby that has undergone a stunning transformation over the last decade, morphing from a pastoral pastime that produced 400-pound champions to a full-time obsession whose practitioners have so successfully tinkered with pumpkin genetics and finely honed growing techniques that they are now regularly producing record-smashing freaks that can grow 40 pounds in a single day and weigh as much as a car.

Even in that world, where a single champion seed can fetch $500 and the techniques for growing a giant gourd are guarded like state secrets, the epic girth of Connolly's pumpkin has electrified. Wide-eyed growers, who have been making pilgrimages to behold Connolly's creation, have respectfully dubbed his pumpkin "The Beast from the East."

"For somebody that's seen big pumpkins - and I've seen 'em all - this thing takes your breath away," said Don Langevin of Norton, author of the book "How to Grow World-Class Giant Pumpkins." "You sit next to it and it looks like you can get into it like a car. When you see it, it blows your mind."

On Wednesday night, Connolly, a 53-year-old manufacturing engineer, was all quiet nerves, like an athlete awaiting his Olympic debut. Speaking modestly of his pumpkin - "to me, it doesn't look that big, but the numbers tell the tale" - he ticked off a list of worries. Teenagers, he said, could smash the pumpkin in the night or it could absorb so much water that it cracks, disqualifying it from competition. He must also hoist the pumpkin off its bed of pink mesh and beach sand and into the back of his truck, without ripping it apart. He has constructed a crane of straps, chains, and pulleys for the job.

"There are so many ups and downs in this sport," he said. "We're hoping this one holds on. I really wish the contest was this week. I've got to wait another 10 more days - it's an eternity."

Connolly has chosen to bypass the Topsfield Fair on Oct. 4, considered by many the Super Bowl of gourd growing, and compete at Frerichs because it will give him seven more days to enlarge his pumpkin. But the decision is not without risks. Concerned that his gourd is getting too big, Connolly recently started severing parts of its 75-foot tentacle-like vine to restrict its ability to drink. It is the growers' equivalent of easing up on the throttle.

"It is growing 11 pounds a day," Connolly said. "That's too much. It should be stopped. It's kind of scary what's going on now. It's old. It's brittle. It's ripe. It needs to slow down."

The current record-holder, Joe Jutras of North Scituate, R.I., is bringing to Frerichs a pumpkin that he estimates at 1,600 pounds. He insists he is not worried about possibly losing his crown to Connolly.

"Records are made to be broken," he said. Still, after visiting Connolly's pumpkin patch to size up the competition, he noted that the pumpkin's weight is only an estimate, extrapolated from its 198-inch circumference.

"It definitely has the size," Jutras said. "Whether or not it weighs what it tapes, you never know. Some of these pumpkins go heavy. Some go light."

Many credit the improvements in giant-pumpkin cultivation to Howard Dill, a Nova Scotia farmer who held the record for heaviest pumpkin in 1980 (450 pounds) and 1981 (493.5 pounds). Dill patented his seeds, Atlantic Giant, and sold them worldwide, putting greatness within the reach of thousands.

Over the last 10 years, the world record has fallen every year and the weight of the heaviest pumpkin has tripled. Thousand-pound pumpkins, once the pride of the patch, are now laughingstocks at major competitions.

"You're nobody in the sport if you haven't grown 1,400 pounds," Langevin said.

Thousands of growers - mostly "just middle-aged guys having fun," Connolly said - obsessively tinker with the genetics of their pumpkins. Connolly bred his beast by planting a seed in April from a 1,566-pound mammoth grown by Bill Rodonis of Litchfield, N.H., and pollinating it in July with part of Jutras's world-record 1,689-pounder. He also treated its roots with growth-inducing fungus. And when small pumpkins began to sprout from the vine, he plucked them off, ensuring they would not sap nutrients from his potentially prize-winning fruit.

"I trained it," Connolly said, "to maximize its potential."

During peak summer growing months, his pumpkin, like other giants, packed on more than 30 pounds a day.

"You can almost see the thing growing, when they're growing 30, 40 pounds a day," said George Hoomis, a competitive grower from Ipswich. "You get up in the morning and you look at it, and you got to work, and you look at it in the evening: It's noticeably much larger."

Champions can claim big money - the Topsfield Fair pays $3,000 to the grower of the heaviest pumpkin and $2,500 to the New England grower with the heftiest gourd. Connolly won $10,000 in 2000 for becoming the first New England grower to bust the 1,000-pound mark. Growers also form clubs, which can share in the glory, as other clubs fork over cash for a prize-winning seed.

Every March, serious growers from California to Canada gather in Niagara Falls, Ontario, for the annual convention of the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth - a governing body for the hobby - where growers toss back beers, swap tips, and play poker with pumpkin seeds. The reigning champion is given an orange jacket - much like the green jacket given to the winner of the master's in golf.

"It gives you bragging rights for the year in the pumpkin world," Jutras said. "That's always the big honor to get. Once you're an orange jacket holder, you take it to your grave."

Even for those who never taste such pumpkin glory, there is sweet satisfaction.

"There's something about a pumpkin," Hoomis said. "You plant a seed that's the size of your thumbnail and, 120 days later, there's something that weighs 1,000 pounds. It's incredible. That's definitely miraculous."

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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