Growing a giant for the pumpkin festival

Barnesville resident shares his experience in preparing for annual event

Heather Sevigny
The Barnesville Enterprise
Close to 800 feet of vine off a single plant surround Daniel Stevens' giant pumpkin.

When it comes to growing pumpkins, most people think of your basic 15- to 30-pound garden pumpkins. Not true when it comes to gearing up for the annual Barnesville Pumpkin Festival. Daniel Stevens, of Barnesville, shares how much work actually goes into growing the giant version of this fall staple. 

According to Stevens, "Everything starts the year before." Getting soil samples and amending them as needed is an often overlooked step. Purchasing the seed or seeds is another of the first steps. The giant pumpkin that Stevens has growing now came from a seed for which he paid $40. Prices vary greatly, with some fetching thousands of dollars. "All of them have the genetics to go to 2,000 pounds anymore," Stevens said. 

Once the plant starts to grow, the real work begins. Stevens will decide which vine looks best, based on how even and thick it is. The vine and leaves are what support the pumpkin during its growing phase. Each section of the vine is covered with soil to help protect it, and with close to 800 feet of vine on a single plant, it's no easy task. 

Hand pollination is also a key factor in the growth of a giant pumpkin. "I come out about 5 a.m. every morning when it's time to pollinate ... and put a couple of staminate (male flowers) into the female flowers and tie a string around it so it doesn't get cross-pollinated," Stevens said. 

"Once the pumpkin takes over, it's all on the leaves. When the pumpkins come out like a football, they can grow in all directions."

A female flower on the pumpkin vine. Hand-pollination is a must, to ensure cross-pollination doesn't take place.

Stevens' largest pumpkin is considered a giant squash and not a true pumpkin. Many of the entries that come to the festival are a similar combination of giant squash mixed with pumpkin. 

To gauge the weight of the pumpkins, measurements are taken length-wise, across the middle and of the circumference. These numbers are added together and checked against a chart to estimate the weight, yet these numbers can be deceiving. There is no way, other than to puncture the rind, to tell how thick the skin is on a pumpkin. Stevens said he's seen some with skin almost 10 inches thick, and that can greatly affect weight.

Protection from the wind, deer and other natural factors keep Stevens constantly aware. He pulls weeds almost every day, has created a natural windbreak and avoids walking where the vines are covered. Thanks to these measures, his giant pumpkin isgrowing at a rate of close to 30 pounds a day. 

It took Stevens three years before he could get a pumpkin checked into the festival before he figured just how much work had to be done. He's been entering since 2012, received first and second place in 2015 and has gotten third place multiple times. His winning 2015 pumpkin weighed in at 1,486 pounds. 

Stevens declined the publication of photos of his giant contender for this year's festival. He's had instances in the past with people messing with the pumpkins or shooting arrows into them. "It's just kids ... I did the same [stuff] when I was young."

After the festival, the pumpkins are typically bound for the seed giveaway. Stevens gives his seeds away instead of charging for them. "I give them away, try to get people into it." At times, his wife has carved the giants for Halloween using a Sawzall. 

A white pumpkin belonging to Daniel Stevens' wife will be entered in this years' festival.

"There's a lot to it. People come to see the pumpkins, but nobody knows how much work goes into it." 

Look for Stevens at this year's Barnesville Pumpkin Festival. The event runs daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sept. 23-26 in downtown Barnesville. The weigh-in for giant pumpkins will take place on Sept. 22. Food and craft vendors, along with carnival rides and attractions will line the streets. Visitors can purchase homemade pumpkin ice cream, take a photo with this year's King Pumpkin or just enjoy the fall event. 

For more information, visit the festival office at 113 W. Main St., or call the Belmont County Tourism office at 740-695-4359.