Lords Of The Gourd: The Pursuit Of Excellence
Airs Sunday, November 11, 2012 at 2 p.m. on KPBS TV
Originally published November 5, 2012 at 12:08 p.m., updated November 9, 2012 at 11:59 a.m.
The extreme gardeners who enter their giant pumpkins in the Cooperstown Pumpkin Fest weigh-off every year have one ambition: to grow a world-record holder and enter the halls of gardening glory. These gurus of the gourd nurture their fruits through harsh weather, floods, animal attacks and even vandalism to produce magnificent pumpkins of monster proportions.
Some say it’s a hobby, others call it a sport, but most agree it’s an obsession. "Lords Of The Gourd: The Pursuit Of Excellence," follows several single-minded competitors as they approach the 2006 event.
Growing giant pumpkins is a passionate pastime — and serious business. “I consider it gardening at its finest,” says Cooperstown competitor Joe Pukos. The costs are high, the sacrifices many and the competition cutthroat.
Most contenders will leave with nothing but a pile of pumpkin pulp to show for the countless hours of preparation. The successful will score generous prize money and possibly lasting fame as the man or woman who nurtured the world’s weightiest pumpkin.
In "Lords Of The Gourd," viewers encounter offbeat and endearing growers who tend, pamper and coddle their plants as if they are children, coaxing them to grow to unnatural size. “I can’t go any place … somebody will ask me, ‘How’s your pumpkin doing?’” comments retired dairy farmer and pumpkin grower Bernie Potter.
Soil must be tested frequently and nourished, water and fertilizer measured precisely and applied, the hefty squash turned gingerly and supported carefully. Some devoted disciples tuck their pumpkins in with blankets every night and greet them enthusiastically with a tape measure every morning.
Of course, there are rumors of creative techniques used by determined growers — people who’ll go to any lengths to raise a winner: spraying the fruit with milk or injecting it directly into the flesh, cradling the pumpkin in its own hammock, talking to it, surrounding the pumpkin patch with end-to-end mousetraps.
In addition to disease, bugs, and squash-loving deer, mice and woodchucks, gardener angst is intensified by the dangers that can damage or destroy the pumpkin just days from competition — anything from a fine crack in the skin to an overzealous growth spurt that can cause the fruit to explode. And saboteurs. Some contenders take to sleeping in the garden in the final days before competition.
Should the pumpkin survive these perils, there remains the problem of transporting it to Cooperstown, which for some growers is miles from the safety of the pumpkin patch. Operating with utmost care, they cautiously winch the pumpkins from their beds and secure them in trailers and trucks. One slip could result in hundreds of pounds of potentially prize-winning pumpkin ending up as pie filler.
"Lords Of The Gourd" follows Joe Pukos and fellow competitors Bill Bobier, Bernie Potter, Deb and Randy Sundstrom and Matt Vershneider through the final harrowing days of harvest and then the long journey cross-state with the bulging behemoths strapped into the backs of their pick-ups. Pukos is a contender for the top prize — until last-minute rumors circulate that another grower has a pumpkin that will break the world record.
At the Cooperstown weigh-off, the massive gourds are hoisted one by one onto the scales and the moment of truth arrives. “You go to enough competitions and you can’t help it: You’re addicted. You do anything you can to hopefully come back with a larger one next year,” says Verschneider.