Susan Warren, author of the book Backyard Giants, talks about "the passionate, heartbreaking and glorious quest to grow the biggest pumpkin ever." Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include www.bigpumpkins.com, www.backyardgiants.com
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, posted on October 29th, 2010. I'm Steve Mirsky. The interview that follows was originally broadcast on Halloween 2007. The TOTALL……. Y BOGUS quiz after that is brand new, so stick around for that, too—and now, Linus.
Linus: [There are] three things that [I have learned] never to discuss with people: religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin.
Steve: Well, I never learned Linus's life lessons, and since it is Halloween we are going to talk about great pumpkins. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Susan Warren is the author of the book, Backyard Giants, which is subtitled: The Passionate, Heartbreaking and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever. Susan Warren is a native Texan, so she is used to things being outsized. She is the deputy bureau chief for the Dallas office of The Wall Street Journal. Backyard Giants is her first book. I called her at her home in Arlington, Texas.
Steve: Hi Susan. How are you?
Warren: Hi Steve. I'm pleased to be here.
Steve: So, you are a respectable journalist with The Wall Street Journal. How did you wind up writing a book about the quest for the giant pumpkin?
Warren: Well, [I get] asked that a lot actually. And it all started with a story in The Wall Street Journal. I'm a gardener myself, and I ran across something interesting in my own garden; when I went to research it on the Internet I ran across these guys who were obsessed with creating these monster fruits. And I wrote a story about the lengths they went to get these pumpkins to the [whale] scale each year, and that ran on the front page and the book came out of that.
Steve: Now, in the book, in the author's note in the book, it says that you actually grew your own giant pumpkins of 240 pounds.
Warren: I did, yes.
Steve: Did you go native after working on the book or was this something that you were interested in before the book?
Warren: Well, I'm a gardener but I did grow the pumpkin as research. That's what I told myself to start with. But in the end I did get sucked in, and even more amazing is [that] my husband got sucked in. He's an architect, and he doesn't even like to mow the grass. But I got him involved in helping me grow this pumpkin, and he became just as addicted to it as any of the growers. So it was a very good lesson in how you can easily become obsessed with these fruits.
Steve: You know, I've to tell you, as I was reading the book I was thinking, "Jesus, well I think I might have enough room in my backyard to try one of these things." It's a very dangerous book!
Warren: (laughs) It is, because that's it. It sucks people in who like a challenge. And if you're the kind of person who is always trying to do a little bit better at whatever it is you do, then this is the kind of hobby that will be dangerous for you.
Steve: You know, I was going to ask you about the personalities of the people involved later, but since you've brought it up, why don't we get into that now. Who are these people? I know there is the Wallace family, and there are some other personalities in the book; but talk about the psychology, more than you already have, about what makes them want to do this.
Warren: Sure. You know, it was amazing to see the diversity of people who have tried to do this as a hobby. There are airline pilots, there are engineers, Wall Street analysts, bankers, truck drivers, country club managers; and, you know, your mom could be a giant pumpkin grower. What they seem to have in common is a kind of a type-A personality, where they are overachievers. They are the kind of people, who work 110 percent all day long, and then they come home and sitting in front of the television isn't enough for these guys and gals. They want to keep working. They go out into the garden, and they put in another few hours. That kind of person who is constantly trying to do better and sees every challenge as something that they have got to try to defeat; that's [who] grows these things.
Steve: But one of the great things is, despite the type A personalities, there is a real kind of collegial atmosphere where everybody is working together in a way, as well.
Warren: It wasn't always that way. This hobby started out, it's a competition, and there was a lot of secrecy involved in the early days of the competitions, where growers, if they found something that worked for them, they held those secrets very closely. There was very little sharing. And the age of the Internet changed that. Slowly these growers realized they weren't going to be able to hold on to their secrets. Pumpkins kept getting bigger and bigger—we've had 15 new world records in the last 18 years—and these guys just realized that it was better to share. And now they have a philosophy of, if I'm going to beat you, I want to beat you at your best, so here, let me help you.
Steve: That's pretty interesting.
Steve: Let's talk about the actual gigantic fruits. First of all, you point out in the book that no other fruit or vegetable gets to be as big as a pumpkin. What is so special about pumpkins?
Warren: You know, that was already true before they really started becoming giants. Pumpkins are part of everyone's history. Everyone has usually very warm, family oriented kind of memories of pumpkins. They are associated with our holidays. They are associated with our fairy tales from our youth—Cinderella's carriage, and nursery rhymes like, "Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater,"—which is actually a rather dark nursery rhyme—but it's been embedded in our culture. These giant orange fruits are just something that we are all familiar with. And these growers have taken this very large fruit, and they have gone to [town] with it. They have pumped it up to supernatural sizes.
Steve: Supernatural, indeed. I mean you have in 1980, your world record is less than 500 pounds, and today the world record stands at …
Warren: 1,689 pounds!
Steve: And that was set just a few weeks ago?
Warren: It was, in Rhode Island. It was actually another one of the growers in the book, Joe Jutras, in Rhode Island.
Steve: And if you go to the Web site, bigpumpkins.com, you can see a photograph of some of the other pumpkin growers hoisting Joe Jutras on their shoulders for a winning.
Warren: Oh! Yes. It was a moment of elation. When these guys win, it is the culmination not only of their dream but also of so many years of hard work. So many years of disappointment, so many years of learning and education to learn what it takes to grow these things.
Steve: So, one of the things that's been going on in the ever-increasing world record size or weight of these mammoth fruits, is they have been practicing classic, kind of, artificial selection. They've been breeding for size, right?
Warren: That's exactly right. They are not pure pumpkins anymore. Not the giants. The giants are the product of a lot of crossbreeding with other heavy cousins like squash. Their goal is heavy, not necessarily just big. For competition, it's too difficult to really compare size-to-size, it's not a very definitive kind of metric. So they went to weight, and in fact, you can have one pumpkin that's smaller than another and yet weighs more if it's denser. And that's why they went to the crossbreeding. They began crossbreeding with squash, which has denser flesh, weighs more. That started bringing in some very strange genetics into pumpkins. And soon they didn't look pretty much like pumpkins at all.
Steve: Yeah! What do you call them? In the book you say that they resemble deflated Thanksgiving Day parade floats.
Warren: They do. That's partly due to just their big size. They grow so large, and they're still somewhat malleable as they grow, and so gravity literally pulls on these things, and they sag in the garden, and then they fold over on themselves. They become just giant, gnarly lumps and often different colors with a cantaloupe kind of netting across the surface. They are tremendously ugly.
Steve: But the object, again, is just to make them weigh as much as possible.
Warren: Yes, the growers who are really competitive could care the less what they look like. They just want them to get as heavy as they can, so that when they take them to the scale, they'll win!
Steve: These things while they're growing might be putting on usually between 20 and 30 pounds a day, and there was even one reference in the book to one pumpkin that they estimated gains 60 pounds in one day.
Warren: This isn't through the whole season. This is at their peak growth period; they begin to rev up. And this is what separates the world champions from just the runners-up. When they can get a pumpkin to put on that kind of weight for several days in a row, 50 to 60 pounds, that's a world champion pace. It's also a tremendous strain on that pumpkin. This is when you start getting into the heartache of this competition, because they are pushing these pumpkins, but they don't want to push them to their breaking point; they don't always have that control. And some of these pumpkins will split wide open, they go on a growth spurt, and they crack open—they literally outgrow their own skin, they grow so fast. Some of these growers say that when they walk out into their garden at night, which they often do, they can literally feel the pumpkins growing in the patch, kind of, creaking and groaning.
Steve: That's amazing. And most of the weight that they are putting on, if they're putting on, you know, tens of pounds of weight on a daily basis, it's got to be water weight, right?
Warren: Well, a lot of water goes into these things. But the flesh is pretty dense, too. It's almost a woody kind of flesh in the denser, heavier pumpkins; and, of course, they have a hollow cavity, which is classic for a pumpkin as any jack-o'-lantern carver knows. So you want [the rind, the shell] as thick as you can get it, so you have a smaller cavity, and the pumpkin will be just concrete when you slap it.
Steve: Yeah, the thumpability test.
Warren: That's exactly right. (laughs) Some growers claim to know how heavy their pumpkin is going to go by how it's thumped.
Steve: They actually put their ear against it and slap it with an open palm and listen to what it sounds like.
Warren: They do it. It's like a bear hug. They just throw themselves across [these] pumpkins, and then they really slam it with their palm. Because these are big guys. And I guess it's not like thumping your watermelon in a grocery store—they are really pounding on it to get those vibrations going. And I tried it and I bruised my hand.
Steve: Just to give people an idea of how gigantic they are—there are boat races that they use some of the pumpkins [for] after the weighing competition; they'll slice a pumpkin open and turn it into a boat that an entire adult human being can get into.
Warren: Oh, easily. Yes, that is maybe a little-known fact about pumpkins: They float. And when you open them up they create a bowl someone can crawl inside, and they paddle with them. The problem with growing these giants is they are spectacles. You are not going to make a pumpkin pie. A lot of people joke about that, but I guarantee you, you don't want to put these things in your body. There's a lot of chemicals going into them, and I am surprised they don't glow in the dark.
Steve: You know, you were talking about the chemicals. On last week's episode of the Scientific American podcast, we talked about the microbial ecosystem that lives on and in the human body, and how you need the good germs as well as you have the bad germs. The good germs often outcompete the bad germs. And in the book you talk about the realization among the pumpkin growers that they needed a microbial diversity in their pumpkin patches; that they were actually overdoing it with the fumigants and the pesticides and the insecticides, and that they were damaging the richness of the soil. They pay incredibly close attention to their soil and have it sent out for testing and make sure they know what the composition is. Why don't you talk about that a little bit?
Warren: Yeah! Absolutely. This is maybe the most critical part of the growing season. Before the seed ever goes into the ground, they have to prepare their soil. These guys research this; they talk to soil scientists all around the country; they send this soil off to be tested. They want to get that perfect nutrient balance, so they are constantly supplementing these soils. These guys are connoisseurs of manure, and they can tell you the different properties of everything from chicken manure to pig manure to good old-fashioned cow manure. They are constantly supplementing their soil with more organics, testing it, making sure it's good, getting the right minerals in there. And then during the season they are trying to maintain that perfect soil balance, which is hard because these pumpkins are really hungry beasts. They suck up everything from the soil very quickly. So you do have to add more nutrients into the soil as they grow. The growers in the past made the mistake of using too many chemicals, chemical fertilizers, and it decimated their soils along with the pesticides and fungicides. They killed all the good actors as well as the bad actors. And then what happens is that you find the bad actors come in much more strongly and flourish in that [more sterile] environment. They slowly learned to use organic fertilizers. They still haven't quite figured out how to get rid of all the pests without the chemicals.
Steve: Yeah! There is some wonderful stuff in the book about them coming out in the middle of the night to chase the gophers away as well as some other varmints.
Warren: They are homicidal when it comes to getting these varmints away from their plants, because it is with one little munch these guys can kill a plant or kill the chances of the plant by nipping off that growth bud, and after that it is just very unlikely that you are going to get a world record off that plant. You'll still get a pumpkin, but they are going for the world record. They don't want just a pumpkin.
Steve: You know, you turn a very nice phrase as the listeners [could] just hear when you refer to the "connoisseurs of manure". Let me just read a short paragraph from the book that I thought was particularly lyrical, and this is early in the book when one of the Wallace's looses one of his pumpkins and you wrote: "Ron's disappointment was sharp and deep and all too familiar. He cracked the rotting skin open in hopes of recovering some seeds. But the seeds swimming in a fetid pool of neon-orange slime were limp and lifeless. Disgusted, he left the broken shards of giant pumpkin lying in the grass next to the garden, an organic monument to disappointment."
Warren: These growers do inspire a certain kind of poetry. I believe that in the garden you can cover all the realms of human experience. Everything is there. Writing this book about pumpkin growers, it seems like a trivial subject but frankly their obsession with pumpkins isn't going to be any different from someone who obsesses over golf. And, in fact, they put in a lot more hard work than the average golfer.
Steve: And so there is this informal network all across the country, and across the world really, where all these guys are now in touch via e-mail and Federal Express in sharing seeds and sharing knowledge, and, you know, all in the service of trying to create the one-ton pumpkin.
Warren: It's absolutely a world obsession. You have growers in Japan, in Australia, in Latin America, all across Europe. Canada is very big with these pumpkins. That's where science and technology is making a big difference in this hobby, because if a grower in Phoenix, Arizona, wanted to try to get a giant pumpkin, he [was, kind of, out of luck] once the temperature hit 100 degrees—which happens when, in March in Phoenix? So, they have learn[ed] to cope through technology, and they actually start growing their plants in Phoenix, Arizona, I know of a grower who starts his plant in January, and he uses heating cables to heat up the soil, and then when the mercury begins to rise outdoors, then he switches to misting systems on automatic timers, and he gets a giant pumpkin out of his garden that way.
Steve: Susan Warren thanks so much for you time. It was fun.
Steve: The latest giant pumpkin world record was set on October 9th, 2010 when Chris Stevens of New Richmond, Wisconsin, brought in a pumpkin weighing 1810.5 pounds at the Harvest Fest in Stillwater, Minnesota. For more giant pumpkin info go to www.bigpumpkins.com.
Now its time to play TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Here're four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: On October 26th, a giant weather system generated the lowest pressure ever recorded in the interior of the U.S.
Story number 2: The U.S. Geological Survey has upped its estimate of the amount of oil in the National Petroleum Reserve on Alaska's North Slope from its 2002 figure of 10.6 billion barrels to almost 20 billion barrels.
Story number 3: Just being subject to vibrations could ward off bone loss associated with aging.
And story number 4: Ozzy Osbourne's genome was sequenced and was found to have traces of Neandertal genetics.
(music plays—"Has he lost his mind? Can he see or is he blind?")
Story number 4 is true. The Prince of Darkness had his genome sequenced and, shockingly, they found some Neandertal in there. For more, check out the article on our Web site titled "Ozzy Osbourne's Genome Reveals Some Neandertal Lineage". Osbourne was quoted as saying, "Given the swimming pools of booze I've guzzled over the years—not to mention all of the cocaine, morphine, sleeping pills, cough syrup, LSD, Rohypnol … you name it—there's really no plausible medical reason why I should still be alive. Maybe my DNA could say why."
Story number 1 is true. The giant storm produced a barometric pressure in Minnesota measuring 28.20 inches of mercury. Only hurricanes and giant Nor'easters on the Atlantic coast have seen lower pressure readings.
And story number 3 is true: A mouse study published in the journal Bone found that a regular dose of full body vibration helped to decrease the loss in bone density that usually goes along with aging. The movement apparently activates transcription factors that build bone. So take a ride on the New York City subway; it's good for you.
Voice: Stand clear of the closing doors, please.
All of which means that Story number 2, about an increase in the mean estimate of the oil in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska's North Slope is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. The 2002 estimate was 10.6 billion barrels but further analysis by the U.S. Geological Survey puts the new mean estimate of the oil in the reserve at just 896 million barrels—that's about as much oil as the U.S. consumes in 48 days, according to the CIA's World Factbook.
We will be right back after this word from Kerri Smith at the Nature podcast.
Kerri Smith: This week: controlling images on a computer screen with your thoughts, a lizard that is helping us understand sex determination and the results from the 1,000 genomes project.
Steve: The Nature podcast is available at iTunes and at www.nature.com/podcast (music).That's it for this episode. Get your science news at www.ScientificAmerican.com, where you will find an article on the physics of Rapunzel's gown. It's really about the challenges of realistic computer-generated animation, which as Rapunzel can tell you is an incredibly hairy problem. Follow us on Twitter, where you'll get a tweet every time a new article hits that Web site. Our Twitter name is @SciAm. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.
Susan Warren, author of the book Backyard Giants, talks about “the passionate, heartbreaking and glorious quest to grow the biggest pumpkin ever.” Plus, we’ll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include www.backyardgiants.com and www.bigpumpkins.com
[The interview portion of this podcast originally broadcast on October 31, 2007.]