Mike Boese says he puts in a good 40 hours per week doing the work required to grow big pumpkins: watering, weeding, trimming, spraying for bugs, measuring and keeping records. “I just love it,” he says.
He couldn’t have invested that much time, he said, except for a temporary plant shutdown where he is employed full-time in Wichita.
“Luckily for me, I’ve had the summer off,” Boese said with a turn-lemons-into-lemonade smile.
While passersby stop to gawk at the huge orange gourds growing in the three-quarter-acre plot next to his house, Boese, only in his second year as a grower, anticipates bigger pumpkins to come as he gains more experience.
“Last year we only grew a 70-pounder,” he said. “We’re friends with people who grow the big ones, like at the state fair.
“When I go to their house and see an 800-pounder in their garden, I come over here and look at these and I’m embarrassed. These are just tiny, baby pumpkins. They’re not even big.”
Inspired by family
Boese’s pumpkin passion actually traces to his mother, Sue Wadkins, who lives with husband Michael in the house on the other side of the plot.
“It kind of got started three years ago because I got this crazy idea that I wanted to grow pumpkins,” she said. “My personal goal was to have enough pumpkins so that each one of the (five) grandchildren could have one for Halloween.
“It sort of took on a life of its own.”
She and Michael have joined with Boese to make the effort a serious, bi-family affair.
“It is addictive, I’ll give you that much,” Sue said.
“There’s very little TV watching at our house—except on the days when we go, ‘Honey. I’m just so pooped, I need to stop and rest.’”
Labor of love
Hours and hours of labor is only one step the two households have taken in their quest for a 1,000-pound pumpkin.
The first significant step was hauling in five semi-truck loads of cattle manure. They paid a price for that beyond the pocketbook.
“After a big rain, I would go outside and sniff— ‘Ah, cow poop. I wonder what the neighbors are thinking,’” Sue Wadkins recalled.
It took long hours to level and mix the natural fertilizer with the soil. The following spring, they planted seeds Boese had received from his monster-pumpkin-growing friend.
“They’re not your generic jack-o-lantern pumpkins— they’re called a fruit pumpkin,” Boese said. “They smell sweeter and sort of taste like a pear. You can eat it straight out of the pumpkin. They grow a little bit larger.”
Boese planted the seeds around April 15—about a month earlier than pumpkins targeted for Halloween use.
“I plant them early so I can get as much growing time as possible,” he said.
“Usually they have about a 100-day growing period,” Boese added. “After 100 days they’ll still grow, but hopefully, even in the days they’re not growing, they’re putting on weight on the inside. Maybe the wall thicknesses are getting a little thicker.”
In the meantime, the real work begins once the young plants emerge from the ground.
“I’m on my hands and knees a lot,” Boese said. “I’m out here with a pair of scissors, and if there’s a leaf that’s dying I come out here and cut it off, cut any dead stuff off the vine and pull all the weeds by hand.”
The key to growing big pumpkins is limiting the development of multiple vines and pumpkins.
“You have a main vine and then you have what they call secondaries off the main vine,” Boese said. “You don’t want any other vines growing off your secondary vines.
“So you have to go through and trim those all out and keep track of where the vines are growing. You don’t want 15 pumpkins on one plant. You thin it down to where you have just a few pumpkins—or even one pumpkin—so all the nutrients from the whole plant go to the one pumpkin.”
Boese monitors the growth of his pumpkins by taking three different measurements on each pumpkin on a regular basis.
“Then we go to the Internet and there’s a place where you can put in your dimensions and it will give you an estimate how big your pumpkin is,” he said.
The growth rate at some points in the season borders on phenomenal.
“They grow so fast and so big that you can’t wait until the next morning,” Boese said. “There are times when I come out here two or three times in one day just to see. There are times, in a 12-hour period, it will grow one to two inches just in circumference.”
When the pumpkins are bigger, every inch of circumference growth translates into about five pounds.
“I imagine if you just came out here and watched it, you could almost see it grow,” Boese said. “I’ve never tried that, but as much as I’ve been out here I probably could have watched it grow.”
Large but fragile
For as big as the plants and pumpkins are, they are surprisingly fragile. Something as innocent as a scrape of a fingernail can make the gourds vulnerable.
“It opens them to where bugs can get in and they start rotting,” Boese said. “Sometimes they can can recover, but sometimes they get a little scratch and they rot—just like that.”
Boese is eager to have the public come by and view his pumpkin prodigies—but he adds a word of caution because of the vulnerability of the plants.
“I don’t mind if people come and look,” he said. “I’d just ask that they don’t touch the pumpkins or walk into the garden because if they kick a vine they could pull it off.
“If they want to come up to the fence and walk around the garden, they can come by here and take a look.”
Interested people can call ahead (316-680-8067) or come by during daylight hours to look at Boese’s handiwork.
“I think the most exciting part of it is having people come by and enjoy it as much as I do,” he said. “Hopefully, they can enjoy it even more because they don’t have to do work. They can just enjoy the view.”
Boese said they plan to sell some of the pumpkins they’ve grown this fall—he estimates they’ve produced more than 4,000 pounds in all.
“Maybe we can take that money and recoup some of our expenses from all the water, manure, bug spray…. It can add up pretty quick.”
Boese knows one thing for certain: They won’t recoup a reasonable wage for their countless hours of labor.
“If I could sell everything, I think it would come out to about three cents an hour—including overtime,” Boese said.
“Sometimes people think, man, pumpkins are expensive,” he added. “But if you figure out all the money and time and effort and resources that go into them….” His point is clear.
Looking to next season
Boese hopes to be called back to work full-time again by next spring. If so, he’ll have to significantly reduce the size of his pumpkin patch.
But he has no intention of reducing his ambition: The target is still a 1,000-pounder. Someday.
“It’s tricky,” Boese said. “You learn a little bit every year you do it; I’m by no means an expert. Once I get into the 500- and 700-pound range, then I’ll feel a little more comfortable about maybe saying I’m skilled at this.”