Jeff Uhlmeyer achieved fame and fortune this fall by growing a pumpkin.
Uhlmeyer’s 2,191 pound pumpkin, grown just south of Olympia, won first place in the Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off in Half Moon Bay, California just over a week ago.
Uhlmeyer, a retired Washington State Department of Transportation pavement engineer who now works for a private sector firm, started growing giant pumpkins in 2009. But over time, he started to worry that his pumpkin-growing hobby was pushing into a greenbelt behind his Olympia home, which might annoy his neighbors. To solve that problem, he moved to a four and a half acre place just south of town with four-plus feet of deep sandy loam, and expanded his pumpkin patch to 12,000 square feet.
Solving problems, he says, is what engineers do. And he approaches pumpkin-growing as “another problem to be solved.” His approach is “research, practice, try again, keep refining the practice.”
He starts his carefully selected seed in April in shelters. He tests his soil, and his list of soil amendments includes bone meal, gypsum and alfalfa meal. He pollinates the pumpkins with a different variety than the seed, as do other competitive growers. (All of their pumpkin parentage is listed on the bigpumpkins.com website weigh-off page.)
Then he weeds, he waters, he waits, and he observes, and “lets the pumpkin tell me what it needs.” In the summer heat wave, he also worried – so he erected a shelter to protect it from the sun and provided fans.
This year, he grew eight giants, of which the winner, which he named Steve, was the largest. He previously won two third-place awards in other competitions, one for a pumpkin that weighed 1,936 pounds, and another that weighed in at 1,760 pounds. But this year, Steve pushed past the one-ton mark.
How, I asked him, do you get a pumpkin that weighs over a ton out of the field and to Half Moon Bay, California?
“First you grow it, then you figure out how to get it out of the field,” he says, with a chuckle.
That engineering feat involved a big tripod hoist, a tractor, and a four-wheel drive forklift to load it onto a flatbed trailer. Then the pumpkin, resting on carpet, was swaddled in blankets, wrapped tightly in a tarp, and carefully strapped to the flatbed for its fateful journey.
Winning, Uhlmeyer said brought him “a whole week of fame. Most people only get 15 minutes.” His victory was covered by media far and wide, including the Associated Press and the Washington Post.
His first-place prize was just under $20,000, and he sold Steve the Prizewinning Pumpkin to a carver.
He’s become an advocate for his giant pumpkin growing hobby; he says the Pacific Northwest Giant Pumpkin Growers club needs more members. And he offers this advice to potential growers: “What you need is good soil, good seeds, good friends, and a lot of collaboration.”
There is a whole world of competitive vegetable growing; pumpkins and other squash may be the most publicized, but cabbage, beets, onions and green peppers are among the contestants in some bigger-is-better contests. And competing in the biggest green pepper category would not require a hoist, a forklift, or, for that matter, an engineer.
Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at jill@theJOLTnews.com
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