Is there anything more quintessentially autumnal than the mighty pumpkin? In the next six weeks, millions of Americans will be buying them, carving demonic faces into them, and adorning their porches and fruit baskets with them. We'll be swimming in Olympic-pool-sized vats of pumpkin spice syrup and making pumpkin costumes for our helplessly imprisoned guinea pigs. And sometimes, we'll even eat pumpkin.
We wanted to know the secrets of True Pumpkin Magick, and who better to represent pumpkin culture than Adrien Gervais, a 90-year-old man from Ontario who has been growing giant pumpkins for more than 20 years? In 1999, Gervais grew a 981-and-a-half pound pumpkin that took home first place at the Port Elgin Pumpkinfest, which purports to attract the biggest pumpkins in the world every year. After reading about "Grandpa" Gervais—also nicknamed "Pumpkinhead"—and his current fast-growing behemoth on CTV Barrie, we had to know how more about this king of gourds.
According to his son Morris, who also runs the family's Barrie Hill Farms, Adrien was born in Manitoba, but moved around to Ontario and southern Quebec with his family after World War II, growing and farming tobacco until 1979. Starting in 1980, the Gervais' switched to fruits and vegetables, and in the mid-90s Adrien developed a strong interest in the budding competitive pumpkin-growing scene. (The Gervais' credit Nova Scotia-based farmer Howard Dill with pioneering the Atlantic Giant breed of pumpkin, which rose to prominence in the mid-1980s and has been considered the standard since.) When Adrien won the Port Elgin competition 15 years ago, he had only been growing pumpkins for a few years. Now he has 20 years of experience under his belt, and is ready to reclaim victory at the Pumpkinfest on October 4th. I asked him and his sons Morris and Ian (who kindly stepped in to serve as translator when Adrien was having some trouble with hearing me over the phone) to share the secret to taking home the blue ribbon.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Adrien. I'm excited to talk with you about your giant pumpkins. Adrien Gervais: Uh huh.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. AG: Where are you calling from?
New York City. We'd love to ask you some questions about your pumpkins. AG: Do you want to see it?
Yes, but I'm in New York City and unfortunately cannot come to Canada right at this moment. AG: Oh. Well, I can't understand you very well. Actually… hold on. [Ian Gervais is put on the phone and has agreed to individually relay my questions to Adrien.] Ian Gervais: Hi.
Hi, Ian. What is the biggest pumpkin that the family has ever grown? AG/IG: 1,225 pounds. The current one is maybe a thousand pounds right now, but it's still growing.
Morris Gervais: I'd say it's right now in the 1,300 or 1,400-pound range. And he's still got seven or ten days until the festival, so he knows how much more weight he can put on it. He's hoping to be in the 1,500 or 1,600-pound range.
Do you think the pumpkin could win the competition this year? AG/IG: We're hoping to get into the top ten, but now you need a 2,000-pound pumpkin to reach the top. Over 2,000, really.
MG: Until you get to the weigh-off, you don't really know. This has been a mellow season. Maybe there won't be any 1,800-pounders in North America this year. But the world record now is 2,000 some-odd pounds—a guy in California last year or the year before.
How have your pumpkin-growing methods changed since your first year as a giant pumpkin grower? MG: You learn from your mistakes, right? So there are lots of things that can go wrong growing giant pumpkins. So absolutely he's fine-tuned it, so that they don't crack. That was the big thing—that they don't split.
How fast would you say these pumpkins grow? AG/IG: They grow about ten pounds a day right now. But in August they were growing 25 to 30 pounds a day. Actually, if you put a brick right near it, the next day you'll see that it has pushed the brick away. MG: These things are growing very, very, very quickly. If there's a crack in the pumpkin, you're disqualified. They pollinated the big one in, like, early July. Let's say [it has been growing for] 90 days. It takes maybe 100 days to make them that super. But if this thing is going to turn out to be 1,800 pounds over 100 days, that's 18 pounds a day. At the start, it doesn't do that because the pumpkin's just tiny, and at the end it slows down a little bit. So there are days at the peak of its growth where it could do 30 or 40 pounds in one day.
How do you stop the pumpkins from cracking? MG: If you allow the soil to get dry, and then all of the sudden you get a big rain, the pumpkin will suck up all that water and start growing really quickly, and it will grow so fast that it cracks. You have to keep the soil moist all the time so the pumpkin is growing at its max rate all the time, so that there's no starts or stops and no bursts of growth, which can cause it to split.
Any other secrets to making sure that they grow this big? IG: Basically, my dad just waters it and feeds it fertilizer.
MG: There are lots of old wives' tales about what people do. But there's nothing to it. Good soil, lots of water. But also good genetics. Manure, sure, but that's nutrients in the soil. If you look up the history of giant pumpkin-growing, when my dad won that competition in 1999, I don't know if anyone in the world had grown a 1,000-pound pumpkin yet. In 1984 or 1985, Howard Dill had the world record, and it was only 400 or 500 pounds. So since the 1980s, they've quadrupled their size by fine-tuning their methods, but also by improving the genetics. When Dad grew his pumpkin in 1999, that was kind of a big deal. He won with 981 and a half pounds, but now it's 15 years later and if you had a 981-pound pumpkin, you'd be kind of embarrassed to bring it to the weigh-off. Because you won't even be in the top ten. You won't even be in the top 20. Like, you need 1,000 or 1,100 pounds at least to even be in contention to win.
IG: He puts a blanket on it. That's true. He takes care of the pumpkin better than his wife. [laughing]
MG: I think the point of [the blanket] is that he doesn't want the pumpkin to cool down at night, he wants it to stay warm so that when the sun comes up in the morning the plant doesn't have to waste any energy heating itself up before it starts growing again. Things grow better in warmer temperatures. So everything is meant to maximize the growth of this thing.
What will you do with the pumpkin after the contest? IG: You just get the seeds and as for the rest of it … we just put it in the compost pile, basically. It's not good for pies or anything. If [my dad] wins first place, he's going to make a replica of it out of fiberglass.
Do you have other pumpkins that you do cook with? IG: Oh yeah. Morris has other much smaller pumpkins for sale.
What will you cook with them? IG: Pumpkin pie. Pumpkin soup. Pumpkin crème brûlée.
What motivates you to take pumpkins to these competitions? MG: The circle of growers is kind of like a fraternity, a fellowship. Everyone gets together and shares information. Once a year in Niagara Falls, they have a seminar where they have speakers and they share ideas and techniques. So it's a combination of genetics and horticultural techniques. With this pumpkin he grew, the parentage was two 1,700-pounders. So he's got the right genetics and he's looked after it. It doesn't have any problems, it doesn't have any diseases, and it didn't split or crack or anything, so he may be in luck.
Thanks for talking with me.