In a typical Clayton subdivision, a common fall display finds two round pumpkins the size of basketballs atop a stack of hay bales. Next door, things get interesting.
There, in a 2,000-square-foot plot, Jack Bacheler pulls back a blue sheet to reveal a white pumpkin, nearly 700 pounds, that's ripe for the picking—meaning, ripe for a forklift and 4x4 vehicle to pluck it from his lawn. Like a wrestler before a match, it's working on its final ounces before competing in the Great Pumpkin/Watermelon Weigh-off at the North Carolina State Fair, a contest endorsed by the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth.
It's the first time the international organization has had a stake at the North Carolina State Fair, which has long hosted its own competition and will continue to do so. For that, Bacheler will bring an 878-pound pumpkin that's being stored on a trailer in his garage, having recently made treks to other weigh-offs in Elkin and Spring Hope. (Previously shown pumpkins can't enter the GPC contest.) Bacheler's third pumpkin of the season, estimated to be about 580 pounds, is on loan to his son in Pittsboro after making an appearance at a school festival. The pounds are impressive, but Bacheler says they probably won't earn him a prize this year.
In Spring Hope, Danny Vester—a newcomer on the N.C. circuit—presented a 1,296-pound pumpkin that filled the bed of his pick-up and reportedly broke the state record. "It's kind of like you're a rookie and you finally make it to the NBA and then LeBron James shows up," says Bacheler, whose 799.6-pound pumpkin earned a blue ribbon at the fair last year. But end results don't entirely matter. It's as much about a love of the process, as it would almost have to be. Growing giant pumpkins is no small feat.
To start, there's finding the right seed. And, as Bacheler describes, "There are more seeds of pumpkins than there are growers," each with their own backstory to study. An envelope for the DeBacco seed that bore Bacheler's garage pumpkin shows its family tree, including a 1,725-pounder from 2009. Bacheler says that seed alone cost between $40 and $50, a small investment when you consider that some seeds cost around $200.
They are planted in carefully amended soil at the beginning of spring. Then there's constant care and monitoring—approximately an hour a day per pumpkin—as vines and pests multiply. To qualify for competition, pumpkins can't have holes, cracks or soft spots.
Conveniently for Bacheler, he's professor emeritus of entomology at N.C. State University. His interest in giant pumpkins was sparked when he saw a field of them near Asheville during a research trip. But bugs are only the beginning of Bacheler's challenges. As he learned when he started growing competitively in 2010, his particular plot in Clayton hosts a large population of groundhogs. A buried fence now deters them. Scattered mothballs and sheets of Febreze keep mice away.
Pumpkins also present their own problems. They can grow too fast (think 50 pounds a day!) and crack open, and their vines can cause soft spots. To prevent this, Bacheler wedges clipped pool noodles between his vines and vegetables so that the two don't touch. Another problem: pumpkins often experience bottom rot. With this in mind, Bacheler grows his on top of 4-inch foam and fine sand, providing better drainage and flexibility as the pumpkin increases in size.
"Experience and failure are probably the best tools," Bacheler says of the process, adding, "I've had a lot of that." Message boards on the likes of Bigpumpkins.com have also proved helpful, particularly for challenges presented by growing in eastern North Carolina.
Traditionally, big crops have roots in the Midwest, or, if in the South, more mountainous areas—not the suburbs of Clayton. In this part of the state, climate tends to keep pumpkins on the smaller side.
Bacheler will share such knowledge at the fair this week as a volunteer in the exhibition building, where he claims it's his last year as a competitor. Behind his home, tulip poplars have begun to shade his plot of overworked soil. In addition, Bacheler says it's difficult to vacation when you're tending to pumpkins multiple hours each day, as he's done in six-month stretches for the past four years.
But it's doubtful he'll give up on giant vegetables entirely. Bacheler is a serious competitor who vied for gold as a distance runner at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City and the 1972 Games in Munich. And pumpkins aren't his only hobby. By the garage that houses his 878-pound pumpkin, a plump green tomato sags on its vine. "That's for another contest," he admits. "With my brother and sister."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Great pumpkin."