Pumpkin' it up

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
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The Independent Online

"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