Great Pumpkin Is Great Surprise Of 1996 Crop Of Mammoth Veggies

GAINESVILLE—For all you Halloween skeptics, Jim Stephens has this to report: The Great Pumpkin is real.

How does he know? Stephens, a University of Florida vegetable crops specialist, is the keeper of the state’s official list of biggest vegetables, and the only one who can proclaim a Florida veggie a champion.

So when Bradenton resident Tim Canniff called up to get Stephens’ seal of approval to claim his pumpkin as Florida’s biggest, Stephens was expecting the record to creep up only a little past the state’s previous pumpkin record of 242 pounds. After all, with Florida’s heat and pests, pumpkin-growing conditions are not ideal.

When Canniff told Stephens how much his pampered pumpkin weighed, Stephens got one of the shocks of his agricultural life. This pumpkin, the greatest pumpkin of them all, weighed in at a whopping 459 pounds.

“Imagine that growing in somebody’s back yard,” said Stephens, a professor in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“It’s enough to scare you to death.”

Canniff says although they were not afraid of his gargantuan gourd, “the neighbors thought I was nuts.” Canniff constructed a huge windbreak to “protect” his pumpkin and said the structure was an eyesore. The vegetable yearned for more space and even grew out of its pumpkin patch and into a neighbor’s yard.

In fact, Canniff said he could literally watch it grow.

“Every day you could see a noticeable difference,” Canniff said of the pumpkin’s roughly 9-pound-per-day weight gain. “At two weeks, it was 50 pounds, at one month it was 200 pounds, at two months it was 459 pounds.”

When it stopped growing, it was 3 feet tall and 10 feet around and the new state champion.

Had the great pumpkin lasted till Halloween it might, indeed, have scared its share of trick or treaters. But giant veggies give new meaning to the phrase “to the victor go the spoils,” Stephens said. They begin to rot quickly and Canniff’s pumpkin had to be harvested, so he donated it to Meals on Wheels. No word on whether folks in his community are still eating pumpkin pie.

Stephens might easily have suspected the novice gardener of telling a fish tale. After all, Canniff’s a commercial fisherman by trade and only decided to try his hand at gardening after the net ban threw some extra time his way.

But Stephens requires documentation by an extension agent who carefully examines the champion veggies to be sure they have not been injected with water or lead weights or anything else that would make them heavier.

Stephens has been keeping the list of the state’s biggest veggies since 1989, and says that usually when records are broken it is by small increments, mere pounds or even ounces, and usually the growers are veterans who have been trying for years to set a record. So surprised was he by the size of Canniff’s pumpkin that he expects its record to stand for some time.

Canniff, however, is all set to try again. He’s offering seeds from his Atlantic Giant pumpkin to anyone who would like to try to grow his own Great Pumpkin. Stephens says planting seeds from a champion is the best place to start in the quest for a mammoth vegetable.

But, he says, the quest is really at odds with the gardening advice he has dispensed for 30 years.

“What I teach in gardening is that a gardener should not allow vegetables to grow exceptionally large,” Stephens said. “For the best eating, you should harvest at an average size.”

Below are the other records set in 1996 and the county where the victor was grown.

    Vegetable Size County

  • Cassava 11 lbs., 4 oz. Palm Beach
  • Cucumber Armenian 30 inches Escambia
  • Honeydew 11 lbs., 2 oz. Escambia
  • Malanga 18 lbs., 3 oz. Palm Beach
  • Pumpkin 459 lbs. Manatee
  • Squash, spaghetti 47 lbs., 9 oz. Duval