Squash: the competition

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

After winning first place at last year's Circleville Pumpkin Show, Bob and Jo Liggett took the champion to their son's front yard and, Halloween being around the corner, carved it up.

Cream Puff was no ordinary jack-o'-lantern, though.

Young Liggetts could sit in her gaping, toothy grin and jump through the top to dive for seeds as big as thumbnails. The hefty, greenish-orange gourd weighed 1,524.5 pounds - the heaviest pumpkin in state history.

Circleville is the land of giants, a town about 25 miles south of Columbus that has hosted Ohio's most storied pumpkin festival for more than 100 years. There you'll find pumpkin donuts, pumpkin pie, pumpkin parades and two Pumpkin Queens - Miss and Little Miss - crowned annually.

But the main event happens opening day at 9 a.m. during a showdown in the center of town.

"They have a sling that they set these huge pumpkins in, and they'll usually weigh 100 or so," show trustee Nanisa Osborn said. "It draws a huge crowd, and people literally stand around to ohh and ahh. I don't know how else to explain it."

The competition, fostered by a local growers association, is fierce but friendly, Osborn added.

At this year's weigh-in, the Liggetts are hoping for good things from Molly or Megan, twin pumpkins growing between six and nine pounds per day late last month.

There's not much of a fence along their Kingston Pike homestead, so neighbors and the rival pumpkin elite often stop by to check the Liggetts' progress. School buses will slow, too, as crowds of young students clamor to the windows for a glimpse of fruit, visible from 100 yards.

"You're really able to see them grow," said Jo Liggett, a retired librarian and lifelong Circleville resident. "If you leave for a weekend, you can really see a difference."

Most times, the couple doesn't leave. They can't.

Growing giant pumpkins is a full-time job that requires the care and attention you'd pay a newborn baby who outweighs a bison before it's six months old. The Liggetts call it an addiction.

"It's a war out here every day," said Bob Liggett, an ophthalmologist with a practice in town. "You don't have to be crazy to grow these things - but it helps."

During winter months, they consult databases to select seeds from plants that have produced heavy in similar climates. Farmers can trace the lineage of prize pumpkins back further than your family tree - one reason the best seeds fetch up to $300 apiece, far more than their weight in gold.

Generally in late April or early May, after germinating indoors, seeds are transplanted in rotated patches perfected by mineral additives and fortified with cow manure. Because of Central Ohio's tricky weather, a small greenhouse is constructed around each plant.

Once it begins to flower, farmers control even the birds and the bees, pollinating plants by hand. They bag female flowers, add desired pollen from a giant male and re-bag the flower until a small budding pumpkin appears.

Then things get really tricky.

"Your plant can be dead in a day," Jo Liggett said. "You think you've got one going great and then it's gone."

Pumpkins are needy, vulnerable plants. Up to 70 gallons of water per day are added via an automatic sprinkler system. So are numerous chemicals to ward off diseases like yellow vine virus, watermelon mosaic, bacterial wilt, and pests including mice, cucumber beetles and aphids.

With a lot of know-how and a little luck, a giant emerges, its vines taking up an entire patch. The Liggetts have two in the running - and several competitors gunning for them.

"I think this is going to be one of the closest years we've ever had at the pumpkin show," Bob Ligget said. "This is the year you're gonna want to come watch."