Growing champion pumpkins


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, October 31st. You’re listening to The World and Everything in It and we thank you for that! Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Circleville, Ohio is a small town where pumpkins are a really big deal. They’re also really, REALLY big.

The farming community hosts a pumpkin growing competition every year, ending with a carnival. In a town of only 12,000 people, that event attracts more than 400,000 visitors.

EICHER: WORLD Radio’s Maria Baer tracked down a veteran pumpkin farmer in early fall to follow his quest for this year’s pumpkin crown.

LIGGETT: This was built in 1844, this house…

MARIA BAER, REPORTER: My first visit to Dr. Bob Liggett’s pumpkin patch was in mid-September. The temperature was still slogging around in the 80s. For Circleville’s champion pumpkin-growers, that was just splendid. 

LIGGETT: The weather right now is ideal. 85 degrees, and it’s not too cold at night, so I think they’ll keep growing at least 10 pounds a day….

Liggett is a geneticist. Well, actually, he’s an optometrist, with his own practice downtown. But when it comes to growing pumpkins, he’s more like a mad scientist.

LIGGETT: We use little bamboo sticks, and make the side vines go perpendicular…

It’s impossible to overstate how big a deal the pumpkin show is here in Circleville. The town’s water tower is painted, year-round, to look like a giant orange pumpkin.

And Liggett is king of the patch.

LIGGETT: We have won 12 times…

Liggett and his wife, Jo, started growing pumpkins nearly 30 years ago at their farmhouse on the edge of town. Each year, his pumpkins get bigger. This year’s contender, named Zeta, is no different.

LIGGETT: It looks to me like it’s gonna be a nice pumpkin…

The first time I see her, Zeta the Pumpkin is sitting under a queen-sized bedsheet in the corner of a leafy green pumpkin patch. She’s surrounded by a complicated-looking sprinkler system and a silver-tinted fence, which Liggett says keeps out the westerly winds. 

It’s only September, but she’s huge. Like, “I-could-carve-her-out-and-sleep-inside -of-her” huge. And she’s all alone—despite the roughly 3,500 square feet of vines, Zeta is one of only three pumpkins growing in this patch.

Liggett explains that’s because her neighbors have all been plucked. Each time a new pumpkin fruits on the vine, he cuts it away, ensuring that its nutrients go directly to Zeta. 

LIGGETT: So if I don’t cut that out, in a week, that will be a pumpkin and it will break down the producers. The way – oh, look at that one in there, I missed that one!

Liggett’s first winning pumpkin in 1996 weighed 628 pounds. That sounds big, but his most recent winner in 2016 was nearly three times that size. Liggett said that’s all due to genetics.

LIGGETT: Actually, this one came from last year’s world record. 2,528 I think it  was. 

Pumpkin growers trade and sell their seeds and then pollinate their plants with other big pumpkins. Last Christmas, Liggett’s son reached out to the 2018 record-winner and requested a few seeds. He gave those seeds to his dad as a Christmas gift. 

LIGGETT: Let’s walk out this way…

Liggett pollinated that seedling with his own 2016 winner, and here she is: Zeta, a designer pumpkin with record-winning parents.

Liggett approaches her protection with equal zeal.

LIGGETT: The sheet does a couple things. It tends to not let the pumpkin get real hot when the sun shines on it. And of course this helps, too…

Still, there’s a lot that could go wrong. The heat could cause her to split. Critters could nibble at her. When Liggett and his crew attempt to lift her onto a trailer next month, they could discover a fungus underneath. They might find a family of mice living there. They could drop her! All of those things have happened before. But for now, we wait.

A month later, I’m back at the patch. The Liggetts host a party for friends and neighbors each year on the night of the Great Pumpkin Lift. There’s a crowd gathered, but no one’s speaking above a whisper. The sun is slowly setting. Liggett and a few friends are strapping a harness to Zeta. That’s connected to a forklift.

AUDIO: [Sound of equipment beeping]

BAER: Ok it’s off the ground, and the guys are crawling on the ground to try and check underneath it…

CROWD: WOOHOO!

Zeta looks good. She makes it to the trailer, safe and ready for the trip downtown for the weigh-in.

Today, it’s perfectly overcast with just a slight chill in the air―sweater weather at last―and the Pumpkin Show is in full swing. 

AUDIO: Happy Pumpkin Show! Happy Pumpkin Show! (laughter)

There, just outside the courthouse, I find her. Sitting regally atop a long trailer, surrounded by other huge pumpkins, is Zeta, adorned with a crown. Her weight, 1,421.5 pounds, is painted on her side in bright colors. She’s Liggett’s 13th first-prize win.

BOY: It cannot be real! It can’t be real.

There’s a line forming to get a photo with her.

BYSTANDER: Ready one, two three, cheese!

A few days from now, Zeta will star in the Saturday night parade through town before she’ll return to the Liggetts. Liggett says he’ll give her to one of his children to display in front of their house for trick-or-treat. After that, he’ll need a hand saw. But he’ll save the seeds, you can be sure; and maybe Zeta junior will tip the scales next year.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Maria Baer, reporting from Circleville, Ohio.


(Photo/Maria Baer)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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