If at first you don't succeed, Try, try again.
— from "Teacher's Manual" (1840), by American educator Thomas H. Plamer (1782-1861)
I heard this phrase often from ancestors and schoolteachers — and one local gardener I know has taken the concept to heart.
Andrew Israelsen, president of the Utah Giant Pumpkin Growers, is trying to overcome the many frustrations when trying to achieve the elusive goal of breaking the state record for the heaviest pumpkin ever grown.
His passion had an innocent start about13 years ago when he and a buddy decided to grow gardens.
To make it more interesting, they had a contest to see who could grow the biggest pumpkin.
Israelsen said his neighbor had a real nice "prizewinner" pumpkin. "Every time I went to his house I immediately went to his garden to look at his pumpkin," Israelsen said.
"He finally harvested it and it weighed in at about 90 pounds. Mine weighed in at about 40 pounds and I decided that I had to beat him the next year."
The next year Israelsen really worked with his soil and grew an Atlantic Giant that weighed more than 100 pounds.
He took it to the first giant pumpkin weigh-off at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, where he met Bruce Orchard, Ray Tolman and other serious pumpkin growers.
"I spent the afternoon talking to them. I asked them, 'Where do you get your seeds?' 'How do you water your plants?' 'How do you fertilize them?' and every other question you could think of. After that, I was hooked," he said.
That's where the couplet on success applies. Israelsen spent the next 10 years chasing the state record.
"That first year I had one that I thought would break the state record of 625 pounds, but it developed a split in late August," he said.
Three years later he had another contender to break the record of 770 pounds. Once again, a split disqualified him. In 2006, he had another pumpkin that he thought might break the record that Kenny Blair set of 1,104 pounds.
But, "That year I got appendicitis two weeks before the weigh-off, and then one week before the contest it rained heavy for two straight days …and once again my pumpkin split and my hopes were dashed."
Israelsen won the contest last year with a 919 pounder, but it still did not set a record. He was pretty certain of a winner this year, but two of his plants went down early. Then a recent hail storm decimated the leaves on his plants and his pumpkin is not gaining weight as quickly as he would like. It's still growing, so hope springs eternal.
He keeps it carefully tucked in blankets both day and night.
Another grower has a pumpkin that might be a recordbreaker, but Israelsen is still hopeful. He said that it is all a question of if the pumpkin has a thick enough wall to make the record weight.
Although he wants to win, he also likes the competition. He encourages all comers to learn to grow the pumpkins and enjoy the fun.
"We tell everyone that if you come and get some of our seeds we give away and come to our training sessions, just about anyone can grow a 100 pound pumpkin. With a little experience and work, you can grow a 300-400 pound one, but it takes a lot more effort to get the great big ones," he said.
I asked him to share his secrets.
He attributes his success to his use of seaweed and fish emulsion fertilizer. He also pays close attention to soil improvement.
"It is the soil that feeds the plant, and it is the plant that grows the pumpkin. I add horse manure, cow manure and pigeon manure, and I also make my own compost out of grass clippings, leaves and even old hay that my neighbors don't use," he said.
"One of the next important things I do is burying the vine. Everywhere you have a leaf, you also have a possible root above and one below the stem. Add these all up and that is a lot of roots that you can get to grow if you do things right."
Never forget the genetics. Israelsen explains, "One secret is the seed. During the winter we write growers all over the country to get seeds. My seed I grew this year is a 1528 Star from Ohio. Each giant pumpkin will have 300-800 seeds inside it, so I have more seeds than I can ever grow. I am happy to give them away."
My final question to him was how he was going to get that pumpkin from his patch to the contest.Comment on this story
"I typically had a pumpkin picking party and would invite half of the able bodied neighbors over and we would roll it onto a tarp and lift it into the truck," he said with a chuckle.
"This year I am going to do it differently. You cannot get enough people around the pumpkin so we a going to use my neighbor's backhoe to get it lifted in."
If you go ...
What: The Utah Giant Pumpkin Growers weigh off
When: Sept. 25; registration begins at 8 a.m.; judging begins at 11 a.m.; the weigh-off begins at noon.,
Where: Thanksgiving Point, Lehi
Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.