Greg Shaw's giant pumpkin patch is both a blessing and a curse. A real-estate agent by trade, Shaw has secured clients as a result of the notoriety his pumpkins have gained over the past several Halloweens. Occasionally, TV crews have stopped by, resulting in his patch—which occupies both the front and back yards of his modest Magnolia home—being innocently trampled by curious visitors.
He's also had the occasional looter. One time, in broad daylight, a grown man began loading a 175-pound pumpkin into the back of his truck. When Shaw caught him, the man played dumb, saying he didn't know he had to pay for it. Since then, Shaw has monitored his patch with devices ranging from a baby monitor to a miniature video camera to ward off scofflaws.
Ever since he raised his first 100-pound Big Max in the '70s, Shaw's been hooked on pumpkins. This year, he's growing a 300-pound baby in the backyard that stands to max out at 500, with seeds purchased at the annual pumpkin weigh-off at Central Market in Shoreline. Such a figure would have been good enough for a world record a mere 26 years ago, when a Nova Scotian named Howard Dill set the mark at 493 pounds. Since then, Dill has become the Victor Conte of the sport, perfecting seeding, breeding, and feeding techniques related to the revolutionary Atlantic Giant Pumpkin. The sport's Barry Bonds? That'd be Rhode Islander Joe Jutras, whose Atlantic Giant weighed in at 1,689 pounds at the Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts on Sept. 29. (To put that in perspective, the record in 1900 was 400 pounds, advancing a mere 93 pounds in the 81 years leading up to Dill's '81 record.)
A few days after Jutras' record-setting weigh-in, Thad Starr of Oregon won the $9,144 first prize for a 1,524-pound Atlantic Giant at the prestigious Half Moon Bay weigh-off in the Bay Area, setting a record for a competition that's regarded as the sport's World Series. Second to Starr was Joel Holland of Puyallup, a three-time winner of the Half Moon Bay weigh-off, who set a personal best in defeat at 1,384 pounds. Holland, a semiretired firefighter who sells pumpkin-growing DVDs on his Web site, hollandsgiants.com, is part of a proud lineage of Northwest pumpkin-growing tradition that first rose to prominence in 1984, when Norm Gallagher of Chelan set the then-world record of 612 pounds.
As for how the sport's evolved over the past century, Holland offers an explanation that calls to mind racehorse breeding, saying, "It's a process of natural selection and more growers crossing their seeds with other people's largest pumpkin. Years ago, everyone thought you needed a giant plant with lots of vines and leaves to grow a big pumpkin, but more recently we discovered that if you prune the plant more severely, you can direct its energy into producing a fruit versus just growing vines and leaves."