Growing ginormous gourds: Nikiski man goes for gold at the state fair

Posted: Sunday, August 24, 2008

Nikiski gardener J.D. Megchelsen is to growing pumpkins what Picasso was to painting, and what Michelangelo was to sculpting. He is an artist and a master of his craft.

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Perennial pumpkin grower J.D. Megchelsen poses with his this summer's giant in his greenhouse in Nikiski. Last week, Megchelsen said the pumpkin probably weighed more than 800 pounds. While he doubts that it will break the record that he himself holds, he hopes it is Alaska's biggest this year.

Megchelsen started nurturing his green thumb as a boy, visiting his grandfather's farm in Iowa. He grew vegetables throughout his young life in New Mexico, then moved to Alaska after college and figured he'd have to scale back his gardening exploits due to the cold and short growing season.

He certainly never imagined he'd be able to grow a gourd that would outweigh any in Alaska's history. Yet, that's exactly what he did several years in a row, and he still reigns as the state champion for a 1,019-pound pumpkin he grew back in 2006 that, pardon the pun, squashed all previous Alaska records.

This year he is back at it again, and while his garden grown goodie likely won't beat his 2006 record, he's hoping the pumpkin will still be the largest grown in Alaska this season, when he brings it up to Palmer at the end of the month to compete in the produce competition at the Alaska State Fair.

"I began growing it on March 28," he said.

From a tiny, slightly off-white seed, the plant began to grow under Megchelsen's tender and loving care. He was originally hoping to make a run at the state record again, since the seed came from good stock.

"It came from New Hampshire, out of a 1,566 pound pumpkin," he said.

Unfortunately for Megchelsen, it became immediately apparent that the summer weather this season was not going to be conducive to growing anything too gargantuan -- relatively speaking of course.

"I think this pumpkin had the potential to go over 1,000 pounds, but this summer has just been so cool and with so little sunshine," he said.

Growing giant gourds isn't like typical gardening; seeds aren't just sown and occasionally watered. It's much more of a science, some might even say a mad science, since like Frankenstein's monster, there is nothing natural about these behemoths that start from beneath the dirt.

"You're putting food, water and nutrients into them at a rate that's completely unnatural. It's comparable to red-lining an engine in a race, hoping it doesn't blow up before you get to the finish line," he said.

Megchelsen's pumpkin gets it's own rich mix of compost and fertilizer, and the gourd itself is kept off the ground and rotated from the stem. He heats the soil to help the roots, and buries the vines where roots sprout so the plant -- which measures about 400 square feet -- can get even more nutrients. It also has a specialized greenhouse to help contend with the weather.

"You still need natural sunlight to help supplement what your doing in the greenhouse," he said, and that factor of the equation wasn't there this year.

Megchelsen also chose a new location to grow his gourd this year. In previous years, he cultivated his crops behind his place of employment, the Tuboscope shop in Niksiki, but this season he decided to move the whole operation a few miles away to his home near Daniel's Lake. It's an unproven growing location, but it has so far yielded some advantages.

"The area has a good microclimate. It's not as good as at the shop, but it's a lot easier to water," he said.

Giant pumpkins can put on daily weight faster than a small child, largely due to the tremendous volumes of water that they suck down though their fire hose-sized vines. They can consume as much as 100 to 120 gallons a day during the peak of growing season, and that water must be warmed. The water at Tuboscope was cold, so until now Megchelsen always had to truck it from home, an incredibly laborious and inconvenient task.

"It takes a load of work off me," he said

Still watering the pumpkins is a delicate affair. Megchelsen found this out first hand last season when his prize of the patch suffered irreparable produce problems just as it was getting plump at around 250 pounds. It split in the blossom end, a terminal injury that caused the pumpkin to rot from the inside out.

"They say if your not blowing them, your not showing them," he said.

This year, he has not had any such problems, and isn't expecting any since one of the only positives to come from this summer's weather will be a solid-skinned pumpkin.

"With the cool summer we had, it grew slow and consistent, so it should have thick walls to support the weight load," he said.

That's not to say that the pumpkin hasn't incurred any injuries this season, but Megchelsen said the few setbacks his prize has had, haven't been too severe.

"It's gotten some cracks, but they've been superficial and are already starting to heal themselves," he said.

As such, Megchelsen said he feels good about this pumpkin's chances of making it to, and sweeping at, the state fair. The pumpkin can't be weighed yet, but it has been measured, and a weight estimated from corresponding weights and measurements for several thousand pumpkins grown around the world.

"It just taped under 800 pounds, so it will likely be around 880 for the fair," he said.

This would make it the third largest pumpkin Megchelsen has grown, right behind his 2006 whopper, and a 942-pounder grown in 2005.

While it may be slightly smaller, Megchelsen said this year's gourd is by far one of the most fetching he has ever grown. Typically, giant pumpkins look like half-deflated balloons that are faded orange or greyish-green in color and have a skin texture like a cantaloupe, but this year's pumpkin has the appearance of a traditional gourd that would be seen in stores around Halloween.

"It's got some great color. It's a nice, medium-orange, much darker than my others. It's a real looker," he said.

For more information on Megchelsen's pumpkin, he has kept on online diary of its growth all season on the Web site www.bigpumpkins.com.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@peninsulaclarion.com.



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