Syngenta Technical Lead Grows Record-Breaking Pumpkin
The man behind the pumpkin is Elijah Meck, technical product lead for insecticides at Syngenta. He recently won the size-based competition with a pumpkin that weighed 1,458.5 pounds, more than 50 pounds heavier than the previous state record. Meck grew the prize-winning cucurbit in his Randleman, North Carolina, home garden.
A Family Effort
Meck describes this feat as a family effort. “It takes a lot of time to grow these pumpkins,” he says. “I think sometimes we might sacrifice doing some family things together, just so I can work in the garden. But my boys will often pick up a shovel or a hoe, so they can be in the garden with me.”
Meck and his wife, Michelle, have two sons: Wyatt, 8, and Owen, 5. When Meck travels for work, Michelle takes over caring for the pumpkins. “I depend on her to make sure the pumpkins keep growing healthy when I’m gone,” he says.
Meck also grows giant watermelons and other basic garden vegetables, including tomatoes and sweet corn, in his garden. His largest watermelon to date weighed 170 pounds, which he says is not very large when juxtaposed next to his pumpkins.
The Daily Grind
Each day, Meck spends time watering, weeding, fertilizing nodes, pruning vines and burying vines in his 1,800-square-foot garden. He says doing a little bit every day helps balance things out so he doesn’t get too far behind.
Meck and other large pumpkin growers use a table of measurements, taking into account the length from blossom end to stem end as well as side-to-side (across the shoulders) and circumference measurements to estimate the weight of their pumpkins. This allows growers to have an idea of how much the pumpkin will weigh before the pumpkin ever touches a scale. Meck’s sons help him hold the tape measure around the pumpkin, so he can record a weekly measurement.
Meck says growing the winning pumpkin was stressful this year. “I lost a lot of sleep over the whole thing, because I knew I had something pretty special early in the season,” he says. “Until it actually got on the scale and was looked over by the judges, I felt a lot of stress. But to see it on the scale in the end was really exciting. It felt like its whole weight was lifted off my shoulders.”
“The goal is to grow bigger pumpkins every year. Whether or not I can accomplish it, that is another question.”
The Origins of a Passion
Meck’s interest in growing large pumpkins sparked while he was in graduate school at North Carolina State University, where he studied entomology. In 2008, the Soil Science Department ran a trial using large varieties of pumpkins. They challenged the Entomology Department to see who could grow the largest pumpkin. That year, Meck grew a pumpkin that weighed 125 pounds. “I was really excited about that at the time,” he says. “Then I started doing a little bit of research and realized that was pretty small in the grand scheme of things.”
Over the years, Meck has discovered that the seed is the biggest influencer in determining how large a pumpkin will grow. “It’s mostly about the seed and the variety,” he says. Meck chose a specific pedigree within the Dill’s Atlantic Giant variety in 2017; and with continual advancements in breeding, he anticipates that he and other growers will have the tools to grow larger and larger pumpkins each year.
But, as with any crop, the seed alone cannot guarantee success. Soil and weather also play a large role in a pumpkin’s ability to flourish. “I always do a soil test to understand the nutrient level, the pH, organic matter and other factors, then amend the soil accordingly,” says Meck.
In the South, sun and heat can increase disease and insect pressure, so Meck placed a shade cloth over most of his garden in 2017 to help reduce the sun’s intensity. But, he admits, the weather is something growers can’t control.
“With the weather, part of it is pure luck,” he says. “We were fortunate this year and didn’t have as many hot days. Once you start getting over 90 degrees, the plant starts to shut down, and it won’t grow the same way that it would in cooler temperatures.”
Meck is already thinking about next year and wondering if he can break his own record. “The goal is to grow bigger pumpkins every year,” he says. “Whether or not I can accomplish it, that is another question.”
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