Jay Richard is serious about his pumpkins. After coming close to state champion status with his giant pumpkins the last few years, Richard has decided to elevate his efforts to grow truly gargantuan gourds.
The Worland businessman is throwing time and effort into building a 30-by-70-foot greenhouse to shelter just two of the large, orange fruits — but they’ll be a prodigious pair of pumpkins.
“I fight the weather every single year,” Richard told Cowboy State Daily about environmental factors that keep him from producing truly epic-sized pumpkins. “This time of year, it's the wind, it's cold, I get late frost, I get early frost, and I'm just tired of fighting it. I've seen other people be successful growing inside, so I thought, well, I want to do that, too.”
Last year, Richard came close to setting a new state mark, winning second place at the 11th annual Wyoming Championship Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off in Worland. His giant gourd, which he named “Blanche,” weighed in at 1,153 pounds.
But that impressive number wasn’t enough to win the top prize, which went to Ron Hoffman of Riverton, who grew a 1,410-pound pumpkin.
“Well, you know the old saying, always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” said Richard.
Although he has won a couple of contests, Richard said he’s decided to focus his energy on growing consistently humongous gourds. And the best way to do that, he said, is to control the environment they’re grown in.
Creating The Right Conditions
Richard said for the last eight years, he has considered building a greenhouse specifically to grow giant pumpkins. This year, he is making it happen
“I have two other hoops that I grow my garden stuff in and things do amazing in those. I’ve got those figured out,” he said. “But the pumpkins growing inside is going to be a whole new adventure.”
Richard explained that pumpkins are more susceptible to unpredictable conditions, such as insects, mildew and excessive heat, so he said managing the temperature and humidity in a greenhouse will be a challenge.
“But some of the things will be eliminated, like today we had 50 mph winds,” he said, “and (in the greenhouse) it was just like being in your living room.”
Richard said he’s planning to experiment with a homemade heat exchange system that will pipe warm air underground to keep the soil warmer in cold weather.
“I'm going to harvest the hot air off the top of the hoop house and circulate it 42 inches under the ground,” he said. “That 30-foot by 70-foot hoop house is lined with a series of heat tubes, so that hot air from the top is going to be pumped through, so it's going to help warm the soil early and maybe sustain a little bit of heat through the fall, while still keep the soil awake all winter — because in theory, the soil really won't freeze in there anymore.”
The warmer soil in springtime should allow Richard to start planting a few weeks early, he said, although he started the project too late to give him a leg up on this year’s competition.
“I'm hoping to be in the ground by the 10th of April, which would be a good solid two weeks early,” he said. “And hopefully, I will be able to mitigate that early frost that we seem to get the first that first week of September every year when they're not done growing quite yet.”
Special Seeds Make Special Pumpkins
Richard explained that not just any seed can produce 1,000-plus-pound pumpkins.
“The giant pumpkins, they're a specific kind of seed and plant, called an Atlantic Giant,” he said. “Everything about them is big, from the seed to the pumpkin. The plants are big, the leaves are big, the vines are big. The pumpkins have the genetic potential to grow very, very large.”
For that extra bit of good luck, Richard has even named the plants that he’s growing in his new greenhouse as a reminder of his intention to grow the biggest pumpkins in the state.
“I've called this project ‘P2K,’ that'd be ‘Pumpkin 2,000,’” he said. “I want to grow a 2,000-pound pumpkin. Whether or not I can ever attain it, I don't know, but I'll put it out there.”
Where Pumpkins Grow – Then Die Spectacular Deaths
In recent years, Richard said he’s come close to the Wyoming state championship title, which is sanctioned by an international organization, the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth.
“I had one that was on a run for (the title), and it split the week before the weigh-off,” Richard said. “It was well over 1,600 pounds the first week of September, then I started noticing I had big problems when it quit growing.”
But he enjoys the annual competition regardless of who wins because the participants, and spectators, get to witness the spectacular end of several of the ginormous gourds.
Since 2011, Richard has organized the contest, which ends spectacularly by anyone’s measure. Many of the giant pumpkins are driven over to a football-sized field, hoisted up by a 200-foot crane and dropped onto cars, pianos and other objects.
So … Can You Eat Giant Pumpkins?
Richard said when the contest is over and the pumpkins are just another crop to harvest, some people do choose to use the flesh of the giant orange orbs to make pie (what else?).
But, he warns, don’t expect your grandma’s prize dessert.
“They're very bland,” he said of the larger-than-life varieties. “They taste more like an out-of-season cantaloupe than they do a pumpkin – just kind of a wet, vegetable-tasting thing. They don't really have a lot of flavor.”
But he does have a tradition each year after the contest is over.
“I take a bite out of one of them every year,” said Richard. “They're not tasty, but they are absolutely edible.”
A Rebuilding Year
Richard said he doesn’t have high hopes for a record-setting entry at this year’s contest, which is set for Oct. 7. Because of his efforts building the greenhouse, he considers this a “rebuilding year” using scientific methods to compare gardening options and other variables.
“I'm going to grow two in the hoop house, and then I'll grow one outside traditionally, just kind of the way I've always grown them,” Richard said. “And then I can have a control, because I've grown this seed in that patch before, and this is what I did with it. And now I'm going to grow two more of them inside and see what I can do with those.”
Richard admits that he’s probably a little obsessive about his pumpkins.
“It's a challenge, and I have a competitive nature,” he said. “I want to do the best I can at it, and when you get this pumpkin fever going, there’s not much of a cure for it. It's pretty addictive.”
But, he said, he’s not just growing giant pumpkins for himself. He considers it a public.
“I love growing, the community likes it, it's something to talk about,” said Richard. “It's not politics, it's funny, the kids like it, the adults like it. And it's a lot of fun for me.”