Gardeners are trying to grow the great pumpkin, a gourd that will top the current world record of 1,810 pounds. At their disposal are new technologies including growth hormone and dual grafting. But the race to grow a one-ton pumpkin looks a little disturbing, at a time when people are questioning how good genetically modified Frankenfood really is for us.
Don Young of Iowa spends $8,000 a year in his quest to grow the biggest pumpkin. The technological methods employed are impressive:
Mr. Young has set state pumpkin records in both Iowa and California — in 2009 Conan O’Brien smashed one of his giant pumpkins on television with a monster truck — and he is a leading figure among those who are fashioning new growing practices. He has invented a grafting technique, for instance, that pushes the food and energy of two pumpkin plants into a single fruit. Other top pumpkin competitors are experimenting with ZeoPro, a synthetic cocktail of supernutrients developed by NASA to grow lettuce and other edible plants in space.
Growers also use PPFM (or pink-pigmented facultative methylotrophs), a pink powdered bacteria that converts the pumpkin plant’s methane into a natural growth hormone found in seaweed, and feed their gourds a “brew” of worm castings, molasses and liquid kelp. Young’s dual grafting technique involves fusing two young pumpkin sprouts:
To explain, he crouched in the dirt, pointing to a double stump that he grafted together in his kitchen last winter. Each stump is the size of a beefy forearm, and the root systems bring in twice the nutrients.
“They told me it couldn’t be done, they told me that for years,” said Mr. Young, who had to sacrifice 300 pumpkin seeds before he discovered the best way to fuse two young pumpkin sprouts. He borrowed a surgical knife from a hog farmer to shave the stems and then clipped them together with hair barrettes. Soon he and his wife, Julie, had to avoid knocking over pots and heat lamps spread around the kitchen counters.
Certainly it puts those of us who pick our pumpkins from a vine at a pumpkin patch (or out of a sagging cardboard bin at the local supermarket) to shame. Of course, those supermarket pumpkins probably have had their share of less-than-natural products sprayed and applied to them. The modern pumpkin-picker prefers a gourd that is perfectly round, smooth and the same orange all over, without bumps and blemishes. Reading about Young’s efforts and those of other members of the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth can give one the inkling for planting some pumpkin seeds in the backyard come next spring.
Last summer, reports of exploding watermelons — Chinese farmers had given them too much growth hormone — appalled American consumers. Young describes one of his mega-size pumpkins doing exactly the same, breaking open after being “juiced up” on too much “brew.” Is growing a one-ton “Frankenpumpkin” not so much of a stupendous gardening feat, but yet another a sign of how technology is changing nature in potentially monstrous ways?
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