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Zen and the art of monster pumpkins

THIS GIANT GOURD in Brandon is destined to vie with others of its ilk for top honors from the Vermont Giant Pumpkin Growers Association this fall. Grower Ethan Nelson thinks it will weigh in at over 1,000 pounds. Independent photo/Mat Clouser

Ethan Nelson has been growing huge pumpkins around these parts since he saw Dan Boyce’s Vermont-record, one-ton pumpkin in 2018. It’s become more than a pastime for the Brandon resident.

“Growing giant pumpkins is a radically joyful act in the face of overwhelming existential darkness,” he said.

Nelson has had a flair for outlandish projects since he was a kid. He even made the newspaper as a boy for building massive snowmen.

Whatever innate tendency Nelson has for the extraordinary, kicked into overdrive when he saw Boyce’s gargantuan gourd.

ETHAN NELSON POSES with his daughter, Sigrid, atop one of the giant pumpkins he is growing in Brandon this fall. He gets a lot of joy from raising giants like this one.
Independent photo/Mat Clouser

In the seminal 1980 book, “Food,” author Waverly Root discusses the challenges in assessing the pumpkin plant, writing, “Our difficulty in distinguishing between squashes and pumpkins arises perhaps from the fact that to arrive at the right answers, you have to begin by asking the right questions.”

Nelson, it seems, has no problem asking the right questions. To paraphrase Aristotle, if you want to be virtuous, do what the virtuous people do — and that’s what Nelson did. He identified the best behemoth pumpkin tenders and picked their brains, not to mention their plots.

A local friend and organic farmer, Jon Satz, put Nelson on to Jenna Baird of Baird Farm in North Chittenden. She gave Nelson his first seeds and taught him some basics, but Baird also urged him to join the Vermont Giant Pumpkin Growers Association, or VGPGA.

Nelson was skeptical at first.

“I thought, ‘I don’t want to join a club, I just want to grow a big pumpkin,’” he recalled. “It turns out the former is the best way to achieve the latter.”

ETHAN NELSON, WHO has been growing giant pumpkins since 2018, demonstrates the method behind estimating his nearly 1,000-pound pumpkin.
Independent photo/Mat Clouser

Nelson found out that for a small fee, the VGPGA provides seed packets, which include various items in addition to the coveted Dill’s Atlantic Giant seeds — required for the biggest pumpkins.

“That’s how I got into giant sunflowers,” Nelson said.

What? I thought we were talking about pumpkins. But a conversation with Ethan Nelson can easily wonder to another autumn staple — the sunflower. Nelson’s garden boasts multiple sunflowers — some pushing 17 feet in height. Now back to pumpkins.

Beyond getting the right seeds and joining the VGPGA, Nelson says there are a few other simple tips to follow to get the plants to the next level.

“Bury the vines, watch for pests, do soil testing to see what nutrients you have and need — then add fertilizers and soil amendments based on (that).”

PUMPKINS AREN’T THE only fall giants you will find in Ethan Nelson’s garden. Here is a row of several nearly 17-foot-tall sunflowers overlook Nelson’s Brandon garden.
Independent photo/Mat Clouser

He said people often ask him if his pumpkins are milk-fed — a prevalent rumor among the gourd-curious.

“The answer is no. Absolutely not. Don’t feed your pumpkin milk — milk curdles; it rots; it invites mildew, fungus, bacteria — just don’t do it.”

This fall, Nelson plans to take his pumpkins — the biggest of which will likely top 1,000 pounds — to VGPGA’s annual giant pumpkin weigh-in at Sam Mazza’s farmstand in Colchester. But even getting them there will be an accomplishment.

He said he uses a “contraption” called a pumpkin lifting ring that consists of a custom welded steel circle with six to eight straps. The straps distribute the weight so the pumpkin doesn’t break in the lift, and there is a single cinch rope at the bottom. Once the pumpkin is situated in the lifting ring, it’s hoisted onto a trailer by a big tractor or a chain hoist on a tripod and driven off to meet its destiny.

Nelson says one of the biggest perks of growing his Brobdingnagian plants is the community of growers, which he credits as being filled with light and positivity. Although each may come at gardening from different vantage points, he thinks they share many things in common.

“I see (giant pumpkin growers) as people who have stared deep into the nihilistic abyss of the human condition and made the decision to do something silly, challenging and fun for its own sake,” he said.

And it isn’t just the giant pumpkins and the towering sunflowers that Nelson cultivates.

“I grow a lot of other things in the garden as well,” he said. “Gardening is a terrific way to find a state of flow, mindfulness and perspective.”

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