Missouri man's passion for giant pumpkins grows

Friday, October 28, 2011 | 4:45 p.m. CDT

KIRKWOOD — The bet started in the seed aisle of a local hardware store: Whoever could grow the biggest pumpkin would win a case of beer.

Luke Puricelli had never tried to garden before, but he's competitive. Growing up, he played sports, and now he and his fishing buddies often wager over small-mouth bass. Puricelli's opponent, Brian Glarner, likes to hunt and considers himself an outdoorsy type.

Before long, though, Glarner's plants became infested with a squash bug. When Puricelli started seeing similar things happening to his plants, he got online.

"I basically was more informed than he was on how to grow these things," said Puricelli, 33. "He lost pretty badly because his didn't make it to the end of the summer, but I managed to grow two that were 100 pounds each."

Puricelli, a financial analyst, said the contest hooked him on the challenge of the great pumpkin. He picked up tips from the Rocky Mountain Giant Vegetable Growers, a club in Colorado, and when he moved to a different home in Kirkwood in December, he made plans for the acre-size backyard.

He carved out a 1,200-square-foot spot and bought a tiller. On the warmer days in February when the ground wasn't solid, he removed all the grass and added 10 truckloads of compost, manure and topsoil. He sent away soil tests to a lab in California three different times and added nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — whatever nutrients were needed.

He got some Atlantic Giants seeds, a variety bred to produce huge results.

On April 15, he planted three vines and built mini-greenhouses for each one out of wood and thick plastic. He kept heat lights on them at night so frost wouldn't kill them or stunt their growth.

Puricelli knew his backyard wasn't ideal for pumpkin growing.

"Most people who do this have patches where the leaves are exposed to at least eight hours of sun," he said. "I have a yard that's just surrounded with huge trees, and the very best spot gets four to six hours."

He tried to compensate with hard work. Four nights a week, he strapped on a five-gallon backpack filled with nutrients like seaweed extract and sprayed the plants. Once a week, he applied insecticide.

He buried vine shoots every foot to encourage root growth, and he used 250 feet of soaker hoses to keep the soil consistently damp.

After pollinating the female flowers July 1, he shaded them with lawn chairs and placed frozen 2-liter water bottles around them to keep them cool.

Later he covered them with sheets to keep the birds away, then fashioned tents out of blue tarp. The skin on the pumpkins had to stay soft or else they would stop growing.

As the pumpkins began gaining up to 20 pounds a day, he put several inches of sand under them to allow for better drainage.

"My in-laws thought I was crazy," he said. "They said it looked like I was building a volleyball court."

Puricelli planned to take the pumpkins to a weigh-off in Republic, Mo., recently, but that changed when his wife Emily gave birth three days early to Marco, their first child.

"We had to put up with a lot of teasing this summer from people who said the pumpkins were Lucas' babies," Emily Puricelli said. "But at least I always knew where he was."

After missing the weigh-in, Luke Puricelli had to rely on measurements to get an estimate of the pumpkins' weight. They turned out to be 500, 400 and 350 pounds. The world record for a pumpkin is 1,818 pounds.

"Compared to the people who do it for years it's nothing, but for me 1,250 pounds is pretty neat considering it was the first year I really tried," he said.

He and Glarner and a few other friends lifted the pumpkins onto hay bales where they are displayed in his back yard.

"When he gets into something, he really gets into it," Glarner said.

Several neighborhood children have stopped by to see them.

After Halloween, Puricelli said he'll probably cut them up and put them back in the garden to use as nutrients. Eating them might be risky considering the amount of fungicides and pesticides he used, he said.

He plans to use seeds from the largest pumpkin next year to try again. This time he'll grow just two and is shooting for 800 pounds apiece.

"It's time consuming, but it's rewarding," he said.

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