Pumpkin' it up

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

There are many things to do with a pumpkin: make a Halloween lamp, bake a pie... or indulge in a fierce and obsessive competition to grow a monster. Emma Townshend investigates

"I live to grow pumpkins. I wish I could win a lottery; then I could grow them all year," says Deb Sundstrom. It may seem late in the year still to be harping on about pumpkins, but for Sundstrom and the other competitors at the Cooperstown Pumpkinfest in New York State, featured in film-maker Mark Lewis's documentary Lords of the Gourd, a pumpkin is not just for Halloween, it's a year-round, lifelong obsession.

These are no ordinary vegetablists. They sprinkle secret mixtures of milk and molasses. They use pendulums to dowse for the sites of new patches. They resort to midnight sabotage of one another's efforts. They install surveillance cameras to prevent patch attacks. They cry like babies when a pumpkin splits or gets a pimple, thus rendering it illegal for competition. Chimney sweep, life coach, IT consultant, dairy farmer and industrial chemist - they each spend up to four hours a day pampering their pumpkins. If one is lost - to deer, woodchucks or the evil squash-vine borer - "a lot of time and effort is wasted. I could have been spending it with my kids," remarks a cheerful father.

Their aim is simple: growing the biggest vegetables they can. Pumpkins, members of the curcubitaceae, the cucumber family, grow at enormous rates, ending up as Jabba the Hutt-like monstrosities weighing as much as a small car. The right seeds (from proven former giants) and intense feeding and watering regimes are all essential. But the rest is horticultural mystery. You can't help wondering whether it's the sheer fairy tale of it all that charms the growers; gourds can grow from 20 to 40 pounds a day at the height of the season. "You can see in the evening that they're twice as big as they were in the morning," says Bill Bobier, champion grower. "Nothing on the face of the Earth grows so fast."

Competitors at the Pumpkinfest have difficulty finding the words to explain their passion. "Oh my God. To think that a fruit could get this big is just crazy. I mean, wow," says one. Many resort to comparing their pumpkins to children. But Lewis's documentary is extraordinarily entertaining, detailing these chronically obsessed lives. Totally American, and at the same time offering something funny about human nature.

Most people would find hellish the idea of a "ban" on holidays during pumpkin season (April to October) and suffering pumpkin-related nightmares ("It's gone, it's split, there's animals in my patch," sums up one anxiety-ridden pumpkineer). But for these guys, it's life lived at its best. Children and spouses either must become enthusiasts too, or resign themselves to a life lived in the shadow of the gourd.

"He chats online with other growers; they compare sizes and so on. Pumpkin envy. I guess it's a male thing," says pumpkin widow Nancy Steele. Kim Pritivera cut a more satisfactory deal for herself - she gave up her backyard to her husband's pumpkins, but she made sure she got a $23,000 minivan in return.

The enthusiasts sport whole ranges of pumpkin-related clothing and domestic ornaments. Even the folks regulating the Cooperstown weigh-in wear cheeky pumpkin hats, as they carry out their task in otherwise solemn fashion. After nine or 10 long months of daily care, letting the pumpkin go is a hard moment for many of these growers. "It's like cutting the umbilical cord," says Bobier. Others talk about how bittersweet the end of the season is, having to acknowledge as caretaker of the plant that there is no more chance for growth.

Some are plain show-offs - "I can't deny it, I like to have people tell me I've raised a great pumpkin" - but I warm most of all to the growers whose ambitions are aimed not at world records, just to do a little bit better than the year before. One lined and bent enthusiast of at least 80 sums it up poignantly: "The reality is that I don't know how many growing seasons I have left. It might be one. It might be 10. I'd just like to have a 1,000lb pumpkin before I cash in my chips."

'Lords of the Gourd' is available on DVD through Amazon.com and is scheduled to be shown on television in the UK early next year

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Walker and Vin Diesel in Fast and Furious 5
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss