Oh my ‘gourd’ness!

Nikiski man hopes to break half-ton barrier

Posted: Wednesday, August 30, 2006


  J.D. Megchelsen is dwarfed Tuesday morning by the pumpkin he hopes will break his own state record later this week. He has nicknamed the behemoth Iron Roughneck and expects it will weigh more than 1,000 pounds when it is officially weighed at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer. Photo by M. Scott Moon

J.D. Megchelsen is dwarfed Tuesday morning by the pumpkin he hopes will break his own state record later this week. He has nicknamed the behemoth Iron Roughneck and expects it will weigh more than 1,000 pounds when it is officially weighed at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

For 364 days a year J.D. Megchelsen of Nikiski seems like a pretty average guy, but for one day annually, at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer, he proves he is a god of gourds.

That day is getting near once again, and last week Megchelsen was in the final stages of preparing the giant pumpkin he grew this season for transport to the fair. He is hoping his prized produce is the biggest one he’s grown yet.

“I’m hoping it’ll go over 1,000 pounds. If it does, it’ll be the first one in the state,” he said.

Megchelsen holds the current state record for the largest pumpkin, earned after a wrecking ball-sized gourd he grew weighed in at 942 pounds at last year’s fair. While proud of this accomplishment, he is determined to break the half-ton barrier.

All indications are this year’s pumpkin — growing from a vine that, trimmed back, still covers 750 square feet and alone weighs 1,500 pounds — may be even heavier than last season’s, since it already is larger in size. Megchelsen said it is difficult to say for certain what the pumpkin weighs, though.

Giant pumpkin weights are extrapolated from known pumpkin weight tables. These tables were compiled by corresponding weights to measurements for several thousand pumpkins.

Megchelsen’s pumpkin, however, has grown so large that it has completely filled its greenhouse and there is no room left for him and the two other people needed to hold the tape to measure it.

The last measurements taken Aug. 20 put the pumpkin — growing on its side — at 5 feet wide, 46 inches from blossom to stem and 39 inches tall. This measurement, and knowing the pumpkin has grown since then, means it could weigh anywhere between 800 to 1,200 pounds.

“I like this pumpkin’s chances to go over 1,000, though. With the cool weather this summer, it grew slower, but heavier at the base. The bottom is very flat and heavily cantalouped,” Megchelsen said, referring to the scarred rind, similar in texture to a cantaloupe.

These features often are indicative of a pumpkin that ends up on the heavier side of the weight spectrum, he said.

While the cool weather may lend weight to the pumpkin come weigh-in, it didn’t make growing the gourd any easier.

Megchelsen began growing the seed March 25 when he wrapped it in moist paper towels and put it in a cooler to keep it warm enough to meet the optimum germination temperature of 90 degrees. It sprouted two days later and was transplanted to soil.

On May 28, Megchelsen manually pollinated the plant and a pumpkin began to grow days later, but it wasn’t growing in the ideal location.

“It grew off the second vine, instead of the main vine,” he said.

Megchelsen explained that the vines are the supply lines to the pumpkin, which at its peak will consume 100 to 120 gallons of water a day. Since the secondary vine is roughly the size of a garden hose, as opposed to the fire hose-sized main vine, “it can really restrict what it gets,” he said.

The cool summer also limited the amount of time Megchelsen could open up the greenhouse to allow natural sunlight and fresh air in on the pumpkin.

“I had to keep the top down more than I would have liked. That brings up the humidity and then you risk rot,” he said.

The pumpkin also developed many tiny cracks and blemishes that would heal, then redevelop, then heal again in a constant cycle throughout the gourd’s growth.

This led Megchelsen to name the pumpkin “Iron Roughneck” this year.

He explained that the “iron” part of the name was derived from all the iron pipe and equipment around where the pumpkin was grown — behind the Tuboscope shop across the road from Nikiski High School. The “roughneck” part came from all the stretch marks and rough features the pumpkin developed during growth.

“It’s a working man’s pumpkin,” he said.

Megchelsen’s garden goody has earned him a lot of attention locally, and as fair time grows nearer, the number of curious onlookers that visit increases.

“People like to come by and see it because it’s so remarkable to see something like this growing here, compared to the Mat-Su valley and other areas of the state where growing is less challenging,” he said.

Megchelsen’s co-workers take pride in watching him work in his garden before, between and after shifts.

“I remember the first pumpkin he grew in a five-gallon bucket, so it’s unbelievable to see how big the plants and pumpkins he grows now are,” said Pam Hemphill, a fellow Tuboscope employee.

Hemphill said she and many other employees enjoy gardening and even growing pumpkins, but their green thumbs pale in comparison to Megchelsen’s.

“There’s no hope of catching him. He’s got us all whipped,” she said.

Knowledge of Megchelsen produce-propagating prowess isn’t just restricted to Nikiski, or even the Kenai Peninsula. Back in June, Kristy Harp, a giant pumpkin grower from Ohio, made a trip up to meet Megchelsen after reading about him on the gourd growing Web site bigpumpkins.com.

“I’ve followed his grower’s diary on the site and he’s e-mailed me advice and stuff, so I thought it would be nice to meet him in person and see his pumpkin,” she said.

Unfortunately for Harp, she overestimated how tiny a town Nikiski was and without getting directions before coming up to Alaska, and not being able to call Megchelsen — due to his phone numbers being unlisted — once she got to Nikiski, she never connected with him.

Adding insult to the situation, Harp returned home and e-mailed Megchelsen to explain that when she couldn’t find him, she decided to camp out at Nikiski High School — a mere 200 yards from Megchelsen’s pumpkin.

“When I found out I was that close to his patch I was so mad,” she said.

Trying to turn lemons into lemonade, though, Harp said that just means she will have to take another trip north someday.

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