Big Pumpkins King James

Jim Gerhardt, with the help of his son, Jimmy, 4, grows giant pumpkins, like this one, which weighs 982 pounds.

To the crowd counting down at Cherry Crest Adventure Farm, this weekend’s pumpkin drop was a 1,200-pound splat, a two-second video and a lot of squash guts.

To Jim Gerhardt, this was the end for Daddy Pumpkin, a squash he’s nurtured since the early days of the coronavirus.

He doesn’t mind seeing all of that work scatter into pieces.

His 4-year-old son and garden helper, Jimmy Jr., however, was in tears on his first pumpkin smash. Seeing the crowd cheer changed his mind, and he can’t wait for the next drop.

Growing giant pumpkins is a hobby that keeps Gerhardt busy. He spends more than 20 hours a week with the pumpkins in peak season. He’s turned part of his backyard in Mertztown, Berks County, into a pumpkin patch. These giants have sent him to Connecticut twice this fall to find a not-canceled weigh-in before the pumpkins started deteriorating. They’ve also sent him through the Holland Tunnel in a truck with a 1,000-plus-pound pumpkin to be carved in New York City.

The challenge makes all of this worth it. Plus, this is a hobby he shares with his son.

“It grows from ‘What could be?’ to ‘How much better can we do every year?’ to ‘This is great; I get to show my son,’ ” Gerhardt says. “He’s 4 years old and probably knows more about plants than most high school kids probably do.”

Dramatic drops

Cherry Crest Adventure Farm brings in mega pumpkins grown by people like Gerhardt to wow the crowds and end the season with a splat. By the time the corn maze in Ronks closes the first Saturday in November, there are plenty of leftover pumpkins to smash, says owner Jack Coleman. Over the past decade the pumpkin smashing has grown to allow people to smash a pumpkin with a mallet, throw them at dart-filled boards and drop them from a lift.

A few years ago, Coleman bought a giant pumpkin to drop.

“People really enjoy it,” he says.

The drop’s grown through the years as well. Saturday nearly 7,000 people watched six giant pumpkins fall.

Three pumpkins, totaling 1,524 pounds, were dropped onto a 2000 Jetta, a car in Coleman’s family headed to the junkyard.

At Cherry Crest, Daddy Pumpkin was filled with water for a more dramatic descent. It worked — the pumpkin dropped with a splat and a spray.

Later at night, a 756-pound pumpkin painted with glowing paint and filled with glow water was dropped.

Coleman tracks down the prize pumpkins through clubs connected to the Pennsylvania Giant Pumpkin Growers Association.

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Big pumpkins Daddy Pumpkin
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Big pumpkins Lunchbox
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Big pumpkins Twins
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Big pumpkins Grinch
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Big pumpkins Grinch

Growing giants

That’s how he found Gerhardt, who grew his first pumpkin 15 years ago in his parents’ garden. He harvested pumpkins that were 50 and 60 pounds.

“I was working as a chemist at the time. I had a degree in biology and I said, ‘Well, let’s see how deep this rabbit hole gets,’ ” he says.

The next year, he grew a 150-pound pumpkin. Then the scales tipped at 400 pounds and 900 pounds. By the time he grew a 1,000-pound pumpkin, he was Pumpkin Jim at his job in the pharmaceutical industry.

There are many ways to grow pumpkins that large. This is how Gerhardt does it.

He starts with Dill’s Atlantic Giant seeds, and not just those found in paper packets. Competitive pumpkin growers look for seeds with pedigree, with details about at least 10 generations not unlike thoroughbred horses. Some cost more than $100 for just one seed.

Gerhardt plants the seeds indoors on April 1. They germinate on a heated mat and grow in pots until they’re planted outdoors. Each one of the six plants has its own soil heater buried underground, keeping the soil around 77 degrees. Overhead, a hoop house protects each plant from cold and wind.

The soil’s tested in the fall and spring and amended. To keep it “fluffy and soft,” the garden has its own boardwalk, or boards where you need to walk.

By the time the threat of frost has passed, the plants are about 8 feet long and 8 feet wide.

Spring and summer are filled with weeding, watering and pruning. Pruning the vines prevent the plant from growing into a tangled mess and keeps the energy focused into one pumpkin.

This variety of pumpkin will grow more roots by burying the vines for a period, which builds more energy for the growing pumpkins. To grow the biggest pumpkin, only one squash grows on each plant. Gerhardt made an exception this year for two pumpkins growing so close together they’re called the twins.

As the vines grow, Gerhardt needs to pollinate and be on the lookout for insects, fungus voles and groundhogs.

Pumpkin passage

By harvest time in September, the pumpkins need to be weighed at a sanctioned event, often at community fairs.

Most of the fairs in Pennsylvania were canceled because of COVID-19, leaving competitive pumpkin growers with few options. Gerhardt was worried about one of his biggest pumpkins, Lunchbox, so instead of waiting for a closer event, he drove five hours to Connecticut. The pumpkin weighed 1,247 pounds.

A few weeks later, he was worried about Big Daddy’s stem, so he scrapped plans for a later event in Altoona and returned to Connecticut. That pumpkin weighed in at 1,279 pounds.

Rounding out the harvest are the Grinch, a 742-pound green squash; the Twins, at 600-plus pounds each; King James, a 982-pound pumpkin; and Prince Charles, a 831-pounder.

While Prince Charles may be the smallest, that’s the only pumpkin seed Gerhardt saved this year. He liked the rind: orange, smooth and shiny.

With so much attention, things can still go awry. A final pumpkin seed from a favorite pumpkin sprouted but the plant turned to mush. This spring’s late frost shouldn’t have bothered the pumpkins with their protections. However, the underground heating cables malfunctioned. By the time Gerhardt realized the issue, the plants had already suffered enough to drop a few leaves.

“I’d say I lost a few hundred pounds,” he says.

There’s always next year.

And next year, he’d love to grow three pumpkins, each one at least 1,500 pounds.