Most of Steve Sperry’s pumpkins weigh a ton — at least. These squash could squash most humans — they’re potentially murderous monstrous melons.
“Giant pumpkins are the Iditarod of gardening,” Sperry said Tuesday. “You ride the rail on these things. There’s a fine line between making it and not making it.”
Gargantuan gourds are growing off Hopkins Avenue in Johnston.
“I recently placed first at (the) Topsfield Fair weigh off,” Sperry said. His blue ribbon-winner weighed a whopping 2,198 pounds. The prize purse netted Sperry $6,500.
But Sperry still has one more pepo left in the patch.
When your pumpkins swell over a thousand pounds, a multitude of factors can make the fruit split, or “blow up,” as they say among the elite members of the planet’s global giant pumpkin cultivating network.
“A set of twins in the UK grew a 2,907 — but it split,” Sperry said. “The goal this year is 3,000 pounds.”
Giant pumpkin growing is a high-work, high-risk, high-reward endeavor. The English twins — Ian and Stuart Paton — grew a whopping 2,656.1-pound (1204.8 kilogram) pumpkin in 2022. This year, the Paton twins had six monsters swelling toward potential world-record status.
“But they all blew up,” Sperry said. “That’s the thing I admire most about pumpkin growers. They can get kicked to the curb, but they get back up and do it all over again. It speaks to their character.”
Sperry’s been growing giant, competitive pumpkins for more than two decades. His recent harvests are gaining notoriety across New England. Last week he placed first at a Massachusetts fair. And later this week he plans to pick his fourth and final giant jack-o’-lantern of the season.
“I’ve got one pumpkin left in the patch that will be picked this week for our state weigh off,” Sperry said earlier this week.
Massive pumpkin cultivation can be a full-time job.
“I fertilize daily out of two 50-gallon drums,” Sperry explained. “Spray insecticide and fungicide weekly. All vines are pruned and buried every three days. I am retired and put in 30 hours a week from second week in June until second week in August.”
For 23 years, Sperry has been studying the art of profound pastoral pumpkins. He works out of his back yard, but requires heavy machinery to harvest, hoist and transport his masterpiece melons.
“Our weigh off is scheduled for Saturday at Pasquale Farm,” Sperry said Tuesday. “We may change the date to Sunday due to rain. We’ll make the call on Wednesday.”
He usually picks on Fridays. Each pick is a production packed with logistical hurdles. Each harvest requires a herd of helping hands.
Baby to Behemoth
“I grow four pumpkin plants in an area (70- feet by 70-feet) in my back yard; one pumpkin per plant,” Sperry explained.
He started his seeds inside on April 12 and pollinated female flowers in mid-June, with the harvest expected “approximately 100-110 days later.”
So far in 2023, Sperry has placed fourth at the Durham Fair (1,525 pounds), first at Topsfield (2,198 pounds) and first place at Ridgefield (2,154 pounds). He’s excited to measure the true girth of this season’s final harvest.
So far, his ultimate pumpkin is thoroughly ribbed and robust.
“These plants are old,” Sperry said. “They’ve given everything they have. They’re six months old.”
The 2023 growing season has been dramatic.
“This has been a very challenging year,” Sperry explained. “We would normally water 100-125 gallons per plant; that was last year. This year, with all the rain we had, there’s very little watering.”
At their peak, pumpkins can gain 40-50 pounds per day. Too much rain can be fatal for Sperry’s bountiful behemoths.
“They will split, too,” he said. “This year’s numbers are way down and way off. A lot of people have lost pumpkins.”
Lots of factors can “blow up” a pumpkin.
“Too much water; too much fertilizer,” Sperry said.
Even traumatic weather can cleave a colossal pumpkin.
“Unfortunately, we had all these tornadoes around us. Like four of them,” Sperry recalled. “Over in Scituate, on 295, at the graveyard — they’ve been all around us. I had nine inches of rain in a week, which, if you get that between day 30 and day 40, you’re doomed. They’re all gonna split. But because, it was like two-three weeks ago, and I was ramping down, fortunately nothing happened. Then it’s off and running.”
World Shaped Like a Giant Pumpkin
Sperry’s an active member of a “network of growers throughout the world.” He belongs to, among other organizations, the Giant Pumpkin Commonwealth (GPC), a governing body that sets the rules and regulations for giant pumpkin growing and competitions throughout the world.
According to official rankings, Sperry’s in fourth place in the world “at the moment.”
His competitors, however, are pledging to harvest some humongous pumpkins this weekend. He expects to slip in the rankings.
“The big ones are going to the scale this weekend and next,” Sperry said. “I only have one left. I’m not going to get my ass kicked but I’m going to get beat.”
The world record pumpkin was raised by an Italian farmer, Stefano Cutrupi, in 2021, and weighed 2,702.9 pounds (or 1226 kilograms). The American record was set by Travis Gienger in Minnesota in 2022 — weighing in at 2,560 pounds (according to www.giantpumpkin.com).
And Sperry said he expects another giant from Minnesota this weekend.
For the union’s smallest state, Rhode Island has more than its fair share of giant pumpkin papas.
A one-time world record holder hailed from North Scituate. And quite a few fantastic fruits have been sprouted in Coventry. Richard Wallace, of Warren, held the state record since 2016, with his legendary 2,261.5 pounder.
“We don’t’ have a lot of growers in Rhode Island, but we’re very competitive with the rest of the world,” Sperry said. “We’ve had Top 10 averages in the past.”
Giant Pumpkin Godfather
However, Sperry credits the “Godfather of Pumpkin Growers” John F. “Sonny” Castellucci, of Smithfield, who died in 2017 at age 88.
“John was an avid gardener and in 1993 he grew the largest pumpkin ever in Rhode Island weighing in at 532.5lbs,” according to the “Godfather’s” obituary. “Shortly after, he was instrumental in establishing the RI Pumpkin Growers Association and hosted many weigh-offs and festivals at his farm in Smithfield.”
Castellucci believed “a man's best hours are spent in his garden.” Sperry agrees.
Sperry got started in the giant gourd game after attending a weigh-off at Castellucci’s house more than two decades ago. Then he fell down the “rabbit hole.” Now he, and the rest of the Ocean State’s RIPGA members, compete to win the coveted Castellucci Cup, which goes to the grower of the state’s biggest pumpkin.
Last Batch From the Patch
He’s been measuring his last remaining pumpkin. It’s covered in a protective canopy. He tends to it like a new father with a really huge, thirsty orange infant.
He measures the circumference, from side-to-side, and from blossom to stem. Sperry finds the dimensions on a chart to estimate the pumpkin’s likely median weight (he said it’s “usually” accurate within 5 percent).
So far this year, Sperry’s harvests have been coming in heavy.
“The Topsfield pumpkin went over-chart by 9 percent — a desirable characteristic,” he said.
Later this week, he’ll use a tripod with 16-foot legs and a girdle made of seatbelt straps.
With some help, he’ll carefully raise the ton of orange flesh onto the back of a flatbed.
“Our pumpkins no longer fit in the back of our pickup trucks,” Sperry said. “We rent a trailer.”
When they arrive at the weigh-in destination, they remove the massive pumpkin with a forklift.
“You got to be very careful,” Sperry warned. “You don’t go underneath it when we’re lifting it.”
The Need for Seed
Contrary to popular belief, giant pumpkins sprout from “regular-sized” seeds.
“I get asked that all the time,” Sperry laughed. “People wonder if the seeds are the size of your hand. They’re not.”
But prized pumpkin seeds can fetch big bucks.
The giant pumpkins raised by competitive growers hail from “controlled populations,” according to the Johnston farmer.
“It’s not genetic engineering,” he said. “It’s just selective pollination.”
Sperry’s pumpkin patch will be bare by next week; its final “old man,” now 105 days old, plucked from its massive, hairy vine. He described his final pick as “ribby” and difficult to measure. On Sept. 21, he said the chart estimate predicted a 2,142-pound plumper. That was two weeks ago. The old man was still growing, and it hailed from a “heavy seed” (the offspring of a former fair winner — this year’s hot seed, the 2365 Wolf).
Sperry’s final pumpkin grew about four feet high, five feet wide and nearly five feet long.
A set of Sperry’s seeds (one seed from each of this season’s four giants) can fetch $30-40 (for four seeds). They’ll be named after the grower, preceded by the weight of the pumpkin — the smallest, “1525 Sperry”; his number two, the “2154 Sperry”; and the Topsfield winner, the “2198 Sperry.”
The last one?
“Whatever this thing weighs with my last name,” Sperry said. “Those four seeds will go into the Sperry package. If they pop some 2,000 pound pumpkins, they’ll get some attention. I’ve got some real good crosses.”
Championship pumpkin growers can fetch as much as $800 per seed, based on past auction results.
The final fate of Sperry’s giant orange offspring varies.
Sometimes he sells them. Some are hacked and transformed by artists for the Roger Williams Zoo’s Jack-o’-lantern Extravaganza.
“I built a snow man on top of one one year,” said Sperry, a dedicated home-gardener, who not only grows giant, sturdy pumpkins, but also tiny, fragile mushrooms.
He raises both with a hearty mixture of love and labor.
Searching for a photo of one of his giant pumpkins carved and on display at the zoo, Sperry joked: “On my phone — most people have pictures of kids — I have pictures of pumpkins and mushrooms.”