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Orange giants

Beaverton resident and giant pumpkin grower Tom Duffy is passionate about his plants
by: Jonathan House, Tom Duffy said he has been interested in growing huge pumpkins since he saw a weigh-off on television when he was a teenager. Right now he has three pumpkins growing, including the largest one that he thinks weighs about 600 pounds.

Somewhere in Beaverton, amidst the rows of tidy houses and typical suburbia, lies a 600-pound giant. At least that's how much Tom Duffy estimates the pumpkin in his back yard weighs.

'You can never really tell until you get them on the scales,' he said.

Besides the possible 600-pounder, there is also one that Duffy said he thinks weighs about 500 pounds, and another that is around 200 pounds. But as big as these three pumpkins are, none of them even come close to the mammoth he wishes they were.

'Everyone wants to be the first to person to grow the 1,500-pounder,' said Duffy, whose personal best tipped the scales at 734 pounds and earned him somewhere around 12th place at the competition he was in.

Duffy, who walks, talks and even smells normal, has been involved in the strange hobby of growing big pumpkins for six years now. His back yard is literally filled with plants just fighting one another for room to grow, which he believes is one of the reasons his vegetables are not getting as big as he wants them to be. He said when he moves into a house with a larger yard, he wants to be like most other growers who tend to 20 pumpkins each year. But turning over his life to raising abnormally large vegetables isn't all that out of character for Duffy, who said he has always enjoyed things that are out of the ordinary.

'I like things that are a little different and off-beat, so growing giant pumpkins is all of that,' he said. 'At the end of the year when you've got the pumpkin in the back of the pick-up and you're driving down the road and you see these kids with their faces plastered against the windows with big smiles on their faces, it kind of makes it all worth it.'

He said his fascination with huge pumpkins began when he was a teenager and he saw a pumpkin weigh-off on television. The broadcast of one of the biggest competitions in Half Moon Bay, Calif., convinced him that as soon as he got a yard that could handle the enormity of these vegetables he would try his hand at growing them. Once he moved into his current house, he met up with a Canby farmer who gave him some Atlantic Giant seeds to start growing.

The next year he got even more involved, joining a club, attending seminars, reading books and using the trial-and-error method of seeing what works. And he said he has had a lot of error in his years of growing, including spraying molasses on the leaves (which just magnifies the sun and burns the leaves) and adding more fertilizer than is necessary (it doesn't do any good).

'It's a lot of learning as you go along,' he said. 'You make a lot of mistakes. I've made all the mistakes, so I know what not to do now.

'Just having your soil in good shape to begin with is the real key. Soil's the biggest thing probably, and the seeds. And then a lot of luck, because you can do everything as perfect as you can, but Mother Nature has a way of throwing some surprises now and then.'

Duffy said he spends countless hours pruning, fertilizing and watering during the growing season, which typically begins the first week in July and lasts about 90 days.

He also said he usually jumps on the Internet for at least 45 minutes each day throughout the year, just clicking around on the different Web sites to see what kind of developments there are in the giant pumpkin world.

During the winter, most farmers do a lot of research and begin to buy their seeds based on how successful the vegetables they came from were; Duffy said this is his favorite part of growing.

'It's the genetics that I really like about growing pumpkins. You can take a look at the mother and the father and you know that they've been cross-pollinated, so it's kind of exciting to see exactly what they're going to produce,' he said.

As a member of Pacific Giant Vegetable Growers, Duffy participates in a number of pumpkin weigh-offs throughout the fall season, including the one coming up at Fir Point Farms in Canby on Saturday. As with most other pumpkin weigh-offs, Duffy said Fir Point's will begin with the dropping of a giant pumpkin from a crane onto an old car, which is 'a real crowd-pleaser.' There will also be cash prizes for other large fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, watermelons and gourds.

But even with the other contests going on, the real draw is still the giant pumpkin weigh-off, which Duffy said always breeds a friendly and fun atmosphere simply because of the nature of the competition.

'I've never been a competitive person, but now that I'm into growing pumpkins I'm starting to be more competitive against other people,' he said. 'One of the aspects of pumpkin growing I like is that you're competing with yourself. If you grew one 500 pounds last year, then you can compete with yourself to do better next year.'

The prize for the heaviest pumpkin at the the Canby Giant Pumpkin Festival is $2,500, second place is $1,750, third place is $1,250 and fourth place earns $1,000. Duffy said the top prizes can end up being a lot higher at certain competitions, giving pumpkin growers a chance to make some big money.

Another event that Duffy is looking forward to is the Pumpkin Regatta on Oct. 28 at the Lake of the Commons in Tualatin. One of the big draws of this event is that growers hollow out their huge pumpkins and turn them into floating vegetable boats for a boat race. Duffy went to the one a couple years ago and said that most people cannot believe that pumpkins can even float like that, or that they can hold the weight of a grown man. But then again, disbelief is something he is used to.

'I can't even count how many people that I've been driving by that … mouth to me, 'Is that real?' That's probably the biggest thing people ask,' Duffy said.