The Great Pumpkin

Dr. Dave Groenke, left, and Eldo Meyer

Pass the laughing gas. I’ve never conducted a phone interview with a dentist in a deer stand. Information on this week’s column was gathered on Sunday afternoon from a 100-plus-acre tract of land outside of Leslie, where Dr. Dave Groenke watched wildlife pass by and hoped to nab a buck with his bow.

In the distance rested the last of his pumpkins, orbs in shades of the setting sun, a bright backdrop on a crisp day of falling leaves and plummeting acorns.

For 31 years, Dave has practiced dentistry in Gerald, and has hunted each November. He’d dabbled in growing pumpkins in the past, but the summer before last he jumped feet first into an enterprise that’s pushed hunting onto the back burner. Dave has become a giant pumpkin grower, a hobby he enjoys that delights area children.

Dave recently won accolades at the Pumpkin Palooza held in Washington on Oct. 27. The event included an official, state-sanctioned weigh-off for the biggest pumpkin — that would be Dave’s, an oblong-shaped pumpkin that tipped the scale at 428 pounds. That’s a lot of pie.

Actually, you don’t make pie out of this type of pumpkin, Dave’s wife, Sharon, said from their home in Gerald. No, Dave explained later. Special pumpkin seeds are required to grow the huge pumpkins featured in contests across the country. In places like California, Washington state and Rhode Island, Dave’s prizewinner would be a pipsqueak. It’s not unheard of for giant pumpkins to top 1,500 to 2,000 pounds.

It’s all about genetics, and super seeds that cost Dave between $15-$20, and that’s each. At that price, there’s not a lot of scattering seed about. On June 2, Dave and his pumpkin helper Spencer Loeb, age 6, from nearby Canaan, placed eight seeds in the ground in the pumpkin patch near Leslie.

The land of milk and honey must have been in Spencer’s blood because his seeds netted two 140-pound pumpkins. Dave’s pumpkin went on to be gargantuan, putting on 8 to 15 pounds a day, while the dentist tended it, pumping water from a lake to keep it hydrated in our horrendous drought, covering the pumpkin with a tarp and erecting two pop-up pavilions over the top to keep it in pristine condition.

Devoted Dave tended his pumpkin full well knowing it could develop a crack, or have the leaves on its vine wither. Like a child blowing a bubble, hoping it won’t burst before reaching monumental size, Dave watched and waited with baited breath. Finally on Oct. 10, he called a halt — had to, because he and Sharon were going out of town for a week, and he didn’t want to take a chance on the weather.

When he got back he needed some help. His brother and four buddies filed into the field to load the pumpkin onto a pickup bound for his dental office. He’d never have got the pumpkin through the door if it had been round, Dave said, but the oblong squash didn’t get squashed.

Dave’s assistant at work, Jessica, told him about the Palooza and that he had to compete, and so he did, collecting $250 prize money that helped offset the cost of the seeds, a load of manure, and a how-to video on growing giant pumpkins.

Dave was eager to tell his pumpkin tale to prompt interest in a hobby he’s  loving and hopefully beef up competition for next year’s Pumpkin Palooza. He’d also like to give a nod to his brother and buddies for helping him move the pumpkin three times, from the field to his office, then to Washington, and back to the office again.

The pumpkin will remain in the dental reception area until Thanksgiving. Then it will be removed piece by piece, Dave said. That will entail a lot of sawing and slicing, but hopefully no drilling.