With cornstalks as tall as telephone poles and mutant kohlrabi, this annual harvest festival in Port Elgin, Ontario, is a celebration of the harvest on a scale you've never seen before.
The cornstalk was so long that three men struggled to hold it up. Slowly, they maneuvered it into an upright position until it hit a metal ceiling beam; that was as far as it could go. “This single cornstalk measures 234.5 inches. That’s over 19 feet tall!” the announcer shouted into his microphone. The men carefully lowered the cornstalk and laid it on the floor next to an array of other enormous vegetables. It turns out, that cornstalk wasn’t even the biggest; first prize ended up going to another stalk that measured 285 inches (23.75 feet) in length.
Welcome to Pumpkinfest, an annual festival that takes place in Port Elgin, Ontario, on the first weekend of October every year. Crowds of more than 50,000 people flock to this small, coastal Lake Huron town, where I currently live with my family, mostly to view the impressive giant vegetables. Growers come from as far away as Quebec and Michigan, and throughout Ontario, to showcase their vegetables in a competition where bigger is always better.
This year, Pumpkinfest’s 30th anniversary, featured some impressive record-breakers. Todd Kline of Shawville, Quebec, won first prize for a pumpkin that weighed 1,877 pounds. This is Kline’s third year in a row winning biggest pumpkin, which shows that he knows something about coddling vegetal beasts. (See last year's prize-winner in top photo.) He also won for largest squash, at 1,117.5 pounds.
Kline says that his secret is feeding the pumpkin maple syrup and manure. Last year he had a conversation with the Owen Sound Sun Times about his growing methods, which feature late-season maple syrup, called bud syrup:
“Late syrup is darker because the sugar has changed to fructose, a natural sugar [Kline] believes his pumpkins like a lot. He's an organic grower all the way and said he thinks his pumpkins are more disease-resistant as a result. There's nothing more natural than compost made from cow manure, maple leaves and greens from his garden. His manure of choice comes from Jersey milk cows -- he thinks his pumpkins pack on the pounds thanks to the extra fat in the poop.”
Pumpkinfest’s Leaderboard features some staggering numbers. Biggest watermelon, 199.5 pounds; biggest cabbage, 50.5 pounds; biggest tomato, 4.38 pounds; and tallest sunflower, 277 inches (28 feet).
The heaviest cucumber, weighed in at 12.23 pounds, is another Canadian record-breaker, grown by Nathan and Jennifer Veitch of Port Carling, ON. Nathan traded seeds with a grower in Switzerland over Facebook, who wanted seeds from their record-breaking 6.38-lb tomato last year. The Veitches also cited maple syrup as a key ingredient, along with liquid seaweed and Epsom salts for magnesium. Having lots of rain all summer helped too.
Nathan told the Sun Times that he began growing giant vegetables six years ago:
“At the time, our neighbour was growing giant pumpkins. And we went up there with the kids to see his giant pumpkins and the kids said, 'Dad, you could never do this.' So, the challenge was on.”
What happens to the huge vegetables? One volunteer told me that they’re sometimes donated for food processing. Kline, who works as a school caretaker, says he will “either donate it to a school or let it sit back in the patch and see if the phone rings, as [he] admits that sometimes you can sell the pumpkin and their seeds.”
Pumpkinfest is a member of the Giant Pumpkin Commonwealth, which oversees pumpkin weigh-offs in Europe and North America. The largest pumpkin ever grown was in Germany in 2014, weighing 2,323.7 pounds. Kline says it will be hard to beat that number because the European pumpkins are now grown in greenhouses. He’ll continue to try, though.
Did you know these monstrous giants can gain 22.5 kilograms (49.5 pounds) per day at peak growth? If you’re interested in growing a giant pumpkin, detailed instructions are available here. The town of Port Elgin gives out giant pumpkin seeds in the springtime, with descriptions of the seed’s parentage, so you can make an astute choice.
Pumpkinfest is full of good, old-fashioned fun for all, from hay bale mazes to seed-spitting contests to pumpkin pie vendors, but it’s the giant vegetables that never fail to impress the most. Maybe we'll see you there next year!