WINTHROP Donald R. Black had a decision to make when his backyard well began running dry during the summer drought; he needed water for both his laundry and his pumpkin patch.
It wasnt a tough choice; Mr. Black used what he had for the pumpkins and drove to the laundromat.
I can take the clothes down to get a wash. I cant take the pumpkins down to get a drink, Mr. Black said. Youve got to make sacrifices.
Mr. Black is closing in on 25 years of growing giant pumpkins in his backyard. Today at 5 p.m. he will harvest two of the vegetables that he estimates weigh approximately 1,300 pounds, display them Friday to motorists driving by his County Route 49 house and move them to an Oswego weigh-in on Saturday. Hell return to St. Lawrence County to showcase another at the Gouverneur Pumpkin Festival on Sunday.
Mr. Black, 54, has lived near Sweeneys Corners in Stockholm for almost his entire life; a half-dozen other relatives live in surrounding homes. For those unfamiliar with Sweeneys Corners, Mr. Black jokes that its a couple miles outside of Buckton and a few more from Beechertown; his house is several miles south of the hamlet of Winthrop.
While he was growing up, his parents always tended a garden with regular-sized vegetables. But a 1980s newspaper article about a record-setting Vermont pumpkin inspired him to attempt large ones.
Over the years, hes attempted growing giant tomatoes, onions, squash and sunflowers. Harvesting pumpkins, which he calls both a healthy hobby and an addiction, has become the mainstay.
The first large pumpkin he grew in 1988 was 183 pounds; he was able to bring his father, now deceased, to that weigh-in.
The first year, I didnt have any G-d idea what I was doing, he said. Im more proud of that one because that was the only weigh-off my father could go to.
He has grown pumpkins every year since except one, when deer trespassed into his yard and ate his vines. Mr. Black gradually refined his techniques, installing heating pipes to keep the soil warm and a greenhouse overhead to nurture the plants during their infancy.
Pumpkin-growing is a year round affair; Mr. Black brainstorms ideas for the coming crop in January and February, plants the seeds in small containers on his kitchen table in early spring and transfers them outside by May 1. Growing pumpkins can consume up to four or five hours of his day, particularly during early summer when they can grow up to 250 pounds per week.
You cant just plant the seed and hope to hell you get a big one, Mr. Black said.
He scoffs when asked if he uses Miracle Gro for his pumpkins, calling that product a crock.
All youre paying for is the name, he said.
Mr. Blacks 884-pound pumpkin was the largest in the world in 1993 per the rankings of the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth. That claim-to-fame yielded invitations to speak at pumpkin seminars in Ottawa in 1994, he said.
He hasnt grown the worlds largest pumpkin since, and anticipates his 1,300-pounders to place around 100th this year. That doesnt deter him from continuing to attempt the Earths largest.
If you get it once in your life, youre damned lucky, he said. My way of thinking is, if you cant try to be number one every year, you might as well throw your seeds away.
You did the best you can. You have to accept what youve got, he said. Anybody can grow regular vegetables. It takes someone thats dedicated and wants to grow the larger fruits.
Mr. Black stared out at the three largest pumpkins in his patch on Wednesday afternoon; they varied in size, shape and color.
You look at that second one, youd swear I had been spraying it with Lemon Pledge to make it so shiny, Mr. Black said. It looks like a giant gob of plaster of Paris, the way it is shaped. You wouldnt think it was real.
For the last couple years, Mr. Black has donated one of his pumpkins to Spankys Diner in Massena where his daughter Melissa works. Customers who correctly guess the weight win a free dinner.
The pumpkin has become a Spankys tradition, said owner Valerie J. LeValley.
It gets people talking, she said. We love it.
Pumpkin-growing has become challenging, Mr. Black said. He was laid off when the North Lawrence Dairy plant closed more than a year ago and was not rehired when Upstate Niagara reopened it; his unemployment has made it difficult to afford the pumpkin patch.
But Mr. Black plans to keep growing large pumpkins as long as he can, if only to continue providing his grandchildren and other area youngsters with something to marvel at each fall.
When you could put a smile on a childs face, youve done your job for the day, he said. Thats part of the reward.