Zen and the art of monster pumpkins


BRANDON’S ETHAN NELSON poses with his daughter Sigrid atop one of his giant pumpkins.
Photo by Mat Clouser

BRANDON — In the 1988 cult horror classic Pumpkinhead, protagonist Ed Harley’s son is murdered, and he enlists a witch to help him conjure a monster to enact his revenge—but not before he is warned that his vengeance may come at a gruesome price.

In both literal and metaphoric ways, Ed becomes the monster, and the film can be viewed as an allegory or moral fable, not only about the nature of revenge but also about the harm we do ourselves when harming others.

Brandon’s Ethan Nelson might know a thing or two about cult films; after all, his dad and two of his siblings appear in Vermont director David Giancola’s notorious time travel film, Time Chasers (released initially as Tangents). He also knows a thing or two about monsters—in this case, monster pumpkins.

Photo by Mat Clouser

“Growing giant pumpkins is a radically joyful act in the face of overwhelming existential darkness,” said Nelson, who, unlike Ed Harley, has been growing his joy since he saw Dan Boyce’s Vermont record one-ton pumpkin in 2018.

Nelson says he’s had a flair for outlandish projects since he was a kid. He even made the paper as a boy for building massive snowmen. Whatever innate tendency he has for the extraordinary, he says, kicked into overdrive when he saw Boyce’s gargantuan gourd.

In the world of pumpkins, surprisingly little is known. There are so many types of gourds, squash, and pumpkins that it can be overwhelming: There are the Hubbard, the Canada, the Winter Crookneck, the Boston Marrow, the Butternut, the Acorn, the Buttercup, the Sugar Pumpkin (aka the Jack-o-Lantern), the Turban, the Pineapple (or Patty Pan), the Cocozelle, the Zucchini, the Courgette, the Summer, the Banana (or Pink,) the Cushaw, the Kuri, the Queensland Blue, the Rouge Vif s’Etampes, the Valenciano, the Jarrahdale, the Costata Romanesca, the Tatume, the Zephyr, the Bottle Gourd, the Bitter Gourd, the Fuzzy Gourd, the Cucuzza, and Tindora—even the Atlantic Giant—just for starters.

In Waverly Root’s seminal 1980 book, Food, Root discusses the challenges in assessing the plant, writing, “Our difficulty in distinguishing between squashes and pumpkins arises perhaps from the fact that to arrive at the right answers, you have to begin by asking the right questions.” 

A row of nearly 17-foot-tall sunflowers overlooking Nelson’s garden. Photo by Mat Clouser

Nelson, on the other hand, seemed to have no problem asking the right questions. To paraphrase Aristotle, if you want to be virtuous, do what the virtuous people do—and that’s what Nelson did. He identified the best behemoth pumpkin tenders and picked their brains, not to mention their plots.

A local friend and organic farmer, Jon Satz, put Nelson on to Jenna Baird of Baird Farm in North Chittenden.  Baird gave Nelson his first seeds and taught him some basics, but she also urged him to join the Vermont Giant Pumpkin Growers Association (VGPGA).

Nelson was skeptical at first, “I thought “I don’t want to join a club, I just want to grow a big pumpkin,” he said.  “It turns out the former is the best way to achieve the latter.”

Nelson says that for a small fee, the VGPGA provides seed packets, which include various items in addition to the coveted Dill’s Atlantic Giant (DAG) seeds—required for the biggest pumpkins. 

“That’s how I got into giant sunflowers,” said Nelson, whose garden in Brandon boasts multiple sunflowers pushing 17 feet in height.

Beyond getting the right seeds and joining the VGPGA, Nelson says there are a few other simple tips to follow to get the plants to the next level. “Bury the vines, watch for pests, do soil testing to see what nutrients you have and need—then add fertilizers and soil amendments based on [that].”

He says people often ask him if his pumpkins are milk-fed—a prevalent rumor among the gourd-curious. “The answer is no. Absolutely not. Don’t feed your pumpkin milk—milk curdles; it rots; it invites mildew, fungus, bacteria—just don’t do it.”  

ETHAN NELSON DEMONSTRATED part of the method behind estimating the weight of his 1,000-pound pumpkin. 
Photo by Mat Clouser

Nelson plans to take his pumpkins—the biggest of which will likely top 1,000 pounds—to VGPGA’s annual giant pumpkin weigh-in at Sam Mazza’s farmstand in Colchester on Saturday, September 17, but even getting them there will be an accomplishment.

He says he uses a “contraption” called a pumpkin lifting ring that consists of a custom welded steel circle with six to eight straps. The straps distribute the weight so the pumpkin doesn’t break in the lift, and there is a single cinch rope at the bottom. Once the pumpkin is situated in the lifting ring, it’s hoisted onto a trailer by a big tractor or a chain hoist on a tripod and driven off to meet its destiny.

Nelson says one of the biggest perks of growing his Brobdingnagian plants is the community of growers, which he credits as being filled with light and positivity. Although each may come at gardening from different vantage points, he thinks they share many things in common.

“I see [growers] as people who have stared deep into the nihilistic abyss of the human condition and made the decision to do something silly, challenging, and fun for its own sake,” he said. “I grow a lot of other things in the garden as well.  Gardening is a terrific way to find a state of flow, mindfulness, and perspective.”

In other words, growing a few monsters might help keep other monsters at bay. 

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