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Thursday, Aug. 18, 2005 05:55 pm

Behold, the great pumpkin

Grow a monster like Dan Polistina’s 561-pound winner

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Dan Polistina’s prize-winning pumpkin
PHOTO BY JENNIFER FISHBURN

Besides corn dogs, lemonade shake-ups, the butter cow and giant slide, the Illinois State Fair has much to offer. My favorite part of the fair is seeing products that Illinois residents have grown or made. Therefore, my first stop is the Hobbies, Arts and Crafts building, which houses the finest Illinois produce, handmade textiles, yummy baked goods, and displays of hobbies.

This year, the talk of the agriculture show is the big pumpkin grown by Dan Polistina of Andrew. This prize-winning monster tipped the scales at 561 pounds. This peach-colored, beanbag-shape gourd was so heavy a forklift was needed to bring it into the Hobbies, Arts and Crafts building.

Dan credits his father and grandfather for his passion for gardening. He has been working the soil since he was an 8-year-old 4-H member. He’s passed his gardening talents to his 10-year-old son Joel. For the past 7 years, Joel has entered the Large Pumpkin, jack-o’-lantern class. This year Joel placed first with his perfectly round pumpkin. As for Dan, this is the third year in a row that he’s won first prize for the biggest pumpkin. How does he do it?

He starts with championship seeds. Dan obtained his Dill’s Atlantic Giant seeds from Howard Dill Enterprises, a Canadian firm (www.howarddill.com). The Atlantic Giant is noted as the granddaddy of all humongous pumpkins, and Howard Dill Enterprises claims it is the world’s largest pumpkin variety. Dill’s Atlantic Giant pumpkins are yellow to orange in color and are perfect for jack-o’-lanterns or fall displays.

The seeds are started indoors in April and plants are moved into the garden in mid-May.

Pumpkins need a full sun garden location, sheltered from winds. The soil should be high in organic matter with a pH of 6.5 to 7. In the fall, Dan adds lots of compost and manure to his pumpkin garden.

Dan hand pollinates the pumpkin blossoms. After the first pumpkin is set, he removes future blossoms from the plant and begins to apply a balanced fertilizer of 20-20-20.

The prize-winning pumpkin came from a 20-by-40-foot plant that Dan watered every other day with about 50 gallons of water. This was not an easy task because his water comes from a well. Dan watered in the evening so that he wouldn’t run the well dry in the morning. The pumpkin was covered with a canopy to keep it from getting sunburned. A sunburn could cause a crack in the skin of the pumpkin.

To keep bugs at bay, Dan uses Sevin spray and dust on the pumpkin plant, stem and the fruit.

Harvest pumpkins when the rind is hard and has a deep, solid color. If vines remain healthy, harvest the mature fruit in late September to early October. Obviously, pumpkins entered in the Illinois State Fair must be cut before this stage of development.

So what will become of this giant orange beauty? Dan will cut the pumpkin up at noon Sunday, Aug. 21, outside the Hobbies Arts and Crafts building. He estimates the pumpkin will have about 500 seeds.

Though Dan Polistina won the blue ribbon at this year’s fair, his is hardly the biggest ever grown in Illinois. The largest pumpkin in Illinois (not entered in the fair) weighed 1,139 pounds and was grown by Joe Richards of Steger in 2004. The world record is held by Al Eaton, of Richmond, Ontario, whose pumpkin weighed 1,446 pounds in October 2004.

If you want to grow a giant, the Pumpkin Patch Web site (www.backyardgardener.com/ secert.html) offers detailed instructions. In order to produce a big beauty, you must be diligent in caring for the plant.