The Great Pumpkin (Smithsonian)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell


Quinn Werner’s backyard pumpkin patch overlooks a wooded creek. In the winter, when the maples and oaks stand like toothpicks and snow coats the western Pennsylvania valley, Werner gazes out his kitchen window and caresses his prizewinning seeds. The topsoil is frozen solid and his orange Kubota tractor gleams in the garage like a showroom floor model. He is not a big talker, but every Thursday his buddy Dave Stelts phones, and their conversation always comes back to springtime, to the patch and the weigh-off.

In April, Werner germinates his seeds, each one as long as a quarter, by soaking them in a mix of hydrogen peroxide and water. He pots them and incubates them in a cooler with heating pads.

He then places the seedlings under fluorescent lights upstairs in what he calls his pumpkin room. On nice days, he takes the little pots outside for an hour or two for fresh air and natural sunlight. In May, every seedling is planted in the patch under its own clear plastic tent fitted with incandescent bulbs that are switched on during chilly nights. Within weeks, the vines stretch out octopus-like from underneath the plastic. In June, when the first golden trumpets of female flowers begin to open, Werner brushes them with pollen-covered stamens from select male flowers and covers them with plastic foam cups to prevent honeybees from meddling with the pumpkin’s pedigree.

Read more in the October 2011 issue of  Smithsonian magazine