Return of the GIANT PUMPKINS

Growers from far and wide are getting ready for Tualatin's annual Pumpkin Regatta
by: Submitted photo Ron Wilson, creator of the West Coast Giant Pumpkin Regatta, stands behind what was one of top 10 largest squashes in the world at the time this photo was taken in 2004. At 880 pounds, a squash of that size would be considered a small fry next to the engineered vegetables of today.

The West Coast Giant Pumpkin Regatta is back.

What is for the most part a respectable town, Tualatin will play home to the wild and outrageous this weekend, drawing oglers and oddity enthusiasts by the thousands.

Now in its eighth year, the event's main draw features the paddling of freshly hollowed-out pumpkins across the Lake of the Commons, each pumpkin big enough to house a competitor seated in the vegetable.

It all happens Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at The Commons, 8325 S.W. Nyberg St.

In addition to the races, the event will include live music, pumpkin carving, pumpkin golf, a costume contest for the kids and more.

'It's the city's largest one-day event,' said Tualatin Parks and Recreation Manager Carl Switzer. 'It's really done a lot of things to help build community. Neighbors come out, they bring their family and friends, bring new people . . . It creates a sense of place, and it gives them a feeling that Tualatin is home.'

The Regatta, which was named the best festival in Oregon last year by the Oregon Festival and Events Association, has garnered national attention, from CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Better Homes and Gardens and others.

The event revolves around a hobby that has grown over the decades in which pumpkins are grown as large as 600 to 1,700 pounds.

'This is really just gardening at an extreme level,' said Sandy Wheeler, president of the Pacific Giant Vegetable Growers club - the function of which is exactly what one might assume. 'You're walking a very fine line; you're pushing these pumpkins to become as big as they can be without blowing them up, which is what literally will happen if you grow them too large.'

The field has attracted more and more hobbyists intent on growing the first 2,000-pound pumpkin.

'A competitive nature and attention to detail are two of the most common traits you'll see (in giant vegetable growers),' said Ron Wilson, former president of the Growers. 'But one of the things you'll notice if you start doing this, is people don't really keep secrets; they'll tell you whatever you want to know. You have this whole thing about wanting to grow a giant pumpkin, but you also have the desire to see the largest pumpkin grown. Everyone's hoping for that day when a 2,000-pound pumpkin is weighed. There's a lot of encouragement amongst growers with each other.'

Wilson began growing giant pumpkins about 10 years ago. He's been unable to grow for the past couple of years, due to a back injury. However, though he may not have anything but clover in his garden at the moment, it's thanks to Wilson that the event exists in Tualatin at all.

'You grow 12 plants, and you'd end up with two or three big pumpkins, but a bunch that are only 600 to 700 pounds,' Wilson said. 'You run out of things to do with them. I know a lot of guys who were rolling 600- or 700-pound pumpkins into their compost pile. What a waste.'

It was in Canada that Wilson witnessed his first giant pumpkin regatta. Realizing he may have just stumbled across a fun use for otherwise useless creations (thanks to the genetic tampering, giant pumpkins tend not to be very flavorful), Wilson presented the concept to the growers, where the idea was readily accepted.

'When we organize these weigh-offs, everybody's working. We're driving forklifts, keeping records . . . just working,' said Wilson of the highly anticipated events which serve to determine who has the largest vegetable. 'We wanted to just be able to throw all these pumpkins in the lake and have fun, take a break from the work. Everybody was pretty excited to do it.

'Ever since the first year, it just gets bigger and bigger,' he said.

The field of giant vegetable growing is ever-evolving, much like the fashion industry; the genetics involved in growing the largest specimen are in a constant state of flux.

'It happens fast,' Wilson said. 'In just one or two years, all the seeds that everyone's talking about, the genetics that everyone's trying to use, it changes fast. It changes a lot faster now than it did just five or six years ago. It was only about 10 or 11 years ago that they weighed the first pumpkin over 1,000 pounds. Now they're weighing in at 1,700.'

These days, a pumpkin can put on 30 to 40 pounds a day during certain stages of growth.

Wilson's grandfather was a giant pumpkin grower; though the standards for size have changed since his grandfather's time, the vegetables were big enough that, as a child, Wilson could crawl in and get his picture taken.

'I always knew that once I got my own land, I'd try to grow some of my own. This would be much more than a normal garden project,' Wilson said. That opportunity came when he and his family moved to a 2-acre lot in Columbia County.

'I didn't know they'd gotten so big (over the years),' Wilson said. 'You find out how big they are, and you think, 'How do you move it? What do you do with it?''

A few growers answer that question by selling their products to stores like Whole Foods. Wilson, who rarely makes money off his creations, always donated a pumpkin to the zoo every year. where the elephants are free to smash and devour the vegetable. Many pumpkins, as mentioned, end up in the compost pile if they're too small to be weighed for competition - which is the main purpose of growing a patch at all.

The benefits of such farming practices, however, include more than just the satisfaction of growing abnormally large vegetables.

'I've never been one to spend much time indoors,' Wilson said. 'I do a lot of (other outdoor activities) too, but when we bought the house we just had a kid and, you know, I remember the pumpkins when I was a kid and how big they were. It took forever to clean them out, you kind of had to crawl in there, and I thought that would be kind of fun for my kid, too.

'It's right out the back door, so you can come home from work, spend a couple hours on a plant and relax. The kids can come out and help; it's a whole family affair.'

According to Wilson, one can easily spend 20 hours or more a week on a yard that grows only six pumpkins. The largest he's grown, which was five or six years ago, weighed in at 1,130 pounds, which was impressive by the standards of that day.

Saturday's festivities will kick off with the growers holding their 12th annual Terminator Weigh-Off, the last weigh-off of the season, where the grower with the largest pumpkin will receive a cash prize.

Then, if they so choose, growers will hollow out a smaller pumpkin (600 to 700 pounds) on the spot and participate in the first race across the lake, with three races to follow: one made up of event sponsors, one being a grudge match between Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue and members of Portland's Army Corps of Engineers, and a race for any local citizens who have expressed interest in competing.

'They come from far and wide,' Switzer said of the farmers and their pumpkins. 'Some people drive three, four, five hours to get here. Saturday morning, that's when they all sort of descend. You get 20, 30 people coming with pumpkins in their trailers or in the back of their old pick up truck.'

All are invited to this free event, rain or shine.