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October 15, 2010 > Quentin and the colossal pumpkin

Quentin and the colossal pumpkin

By Simon Wong

Photo courtesy of Paul Martin

Most have heard the children's story "James and the Giant Peach" by Roald Dahl, but few know of "Quentin and the Colossal Pumpkin" by Paul Martin. This is because Martin is not an author but, should he ever decide to put pen to paper, a discourse on "successful parenting" might be appropriate.

Quentin Martin, a local 14-year old is much like any other young teenager but what sets him apart is a maturity beyond his years with an interest and a clear idea of a career. Paul Martin, a Hayward Rotarian and former chair of the Hayward Chamber of Commerce, and his wife, Mary, do not suffer the angst through which many youngsters put their parents at that "difficult age."

As a two-year old, Quentin's interest in horticulture was sparked when he started to help his father in the yard. His uncle, Jim Martin, Castro Valley, has grown giant pumpkins for a decade and is a regular entrant at the World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off which marks the start of the Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival. This year Quentin decided he would try to cultivate one himself with some guidance from his uncle.

"I put a seed in the ground and watched it grow to be this giant pumpkin," Quentin said. "It's really cool. It's different from everything else, different than squash or regular-sized pumpkins. When it was just half its present size, people were amazed but it has grown even more."

Amazingly, Quentin planted his Atlantic Giant pumpkin seed on May 23, 2010, less than five months ago. The young plant was kept warm with a small, improvised greenhouse and fertilized. The fertilizer's composition was modified as the pumpkin grew. The gourd was watered for one minute every 10 minutes. The correct amount of mulch maintained the soil's nutrient levels. Six-foot tall fencing around the pumpkin kept critters at bay.

"Deer couldn't jump over it. Possums and raccoons couldn't get into it. Turkeys flew over it but they didn't eat the plant. The turkeys eat the bugs, so they actually helped me," Quentin explained.

He is privy to the secrets of pumpkin husbandry. He has a manual on growing prize specimens, how to calculate their weight and predict their growth. He had an idea of how much arithmetic might be involved but is surprised at the amount of science associated with his undertaking.

Growing giant vegetables is a specialty for gardeners. Such specimens do not occur by chance. Certain varieties are known for their size and, according to the laws of genetics, their offspring (seeds) are likely to grow to similar proportions under the right conditions.

Pumpkins have genders. When young, the sex is indeterminate so the Martins called the pumpkin "Shim, coined from 'she" and 'him." Shim is female and was growing at 25-30 lbs per day in September.

The Martins used sling-loading straps to move Shim onto a pallet which was then placed on the back of a truck by tractor before setting off on October 11 for the 37th annual Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off. Giant gourds were lifted by forklifts and harnesses onto a five-ton capacity, industrial-strength digital scale in the presence of officials from the San Mateo County Agricultural Commissioner's Office of Weights, Sealers and Measures. The winning pumpkins were displayed at the Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival on October 16-17.

An Iowa-grown pumpkin, weighing almost 1,658 lbs, won in 2009. Quentin did not expect to break world records (1,725 lbs for an Ohio-grown specimen) but wished to participate in the world's most prestigious pumpkin competition.

"Some people laugh but I say I want to be a farmer when I'm older. I really enjoy being in the open, looking at the land, growing things and figuring out the exact science of it. I like seeing my achievements."

He is focused more on plants than livestock and is interested in attending one of the agricultural schools in California such as Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Davis or Fresno State.

At Half Moon Bay, Quentin's colossal pumpkin tipped the scales at 823 lbs which is less than the 1,000 lbs he had predicted. The top 10 pumpkins weighed more than 1,000 lbs.

"I have a new hobby that's fun and will grow another giant pumpkin next year. My first has been a learning experience and has shown me how hard you have to work to get the end result," he said. "I got to see what Shim actually weighs and how close my estimates were."

"We live on three acres with orange, peach, persimmon and plum trees. For the past five years, I've been unable to get them to bear more than one or two pieces of fruit. This year I turned the garden over to Quentin and he produced approximately 20 times more than I did in five seasons and grew tomatoes. He did it all on his own which is surprising for a 14-year old boy nowadays," Paul Martin says proudly of his son.

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