October 17, 2013 | XLIII 41

School librarian lands a whopper

It may not be the Great Pumpkin, but one hoisted onto a desk at the Haines School library Monday is the biggest pumpkin seen around here in a long time.

Students coming in to check out books at first don’t believe it’s real, said librarian Leigh Horner. The gourd that measures about 27 inches tall and 70 inches in girth left students in Mark Fontenot’s science class slack-jawed Monday. “Wow. You could make a ton of pies with that,” said freshman Lyric Wiggins.

Students will get to name the pumpkin, guess its weight and choose a design for carving it, Horner said. The school’s upper-level engineering class will do the carving. Food program director Gen Armstrong will roast the pumpkin’s seeds for school snacks.

The giant is on loan from former teacher and longtime local gardener Kate Saunders, who drove the massive fruit to the landfill office Monday to weigh it on a heavy-duty scale there. “Kate called me up and said, ‘I’ve got this pumpkin. Can you do something with it?’” Horner said. “I said, ‘You bet.’”

Saunders said the pumpkin is a variety called “Atlantic Giant.” A friend who grows them in Hawaii gave her seeds, curious about how they’d fare here. Saunders planted six indoors in April, but the vines grew so fast, she gave away the others to friends. “It took over the whole window bay. It was growing six inches a day. I soon realized I didn’t have room for them all,” Saunders said.

The plant was just a vine until July, when a gourd appeared, and it also grew quickly, Saunders said. “It’s a little scary how they grow so fast.”

A warmer-climate plant, giant pumpkins don’t grow naturally in Southeast Alaska. In June, Saunders tried keeping the vine outside of an outdoor, enclosed “high-tunnel.” It stopped growing. So she built another hothouse. She also fertilized using a “compost tea,” a solution made in part with chicken scratch. Germination was artificial, as female flowers open only for short periods and Haines doesn’t have insects enough for it to occur naturally, she said.

Saunders culled off smaller gourds and ones that developed soft spots. That left her with her prize pumpkin, which is a little oblong, but impressive, at least by Haines standards. A giant pumpkin recently grown in the Midwest reached 1,779 pounds, she said.

Saunders said she’s confident she can grow a bigger pumpkin, but probably not one that will match the record-holders. “That is their potential. Over 1,000 pounds is what they are supposed to grow to. Ours is just a baby, but now we know it’s possible. These type pumpkins ideally need 120 days from start to finish. We don’t have that kind of a growing season here. Nowhere close,” she said.

Still, she said she hopes her giant will encourage others to try growing the species here. “This was just too cool. I wanted the kids to be able to see it and enjoy it and Leigh came up with all these great things to do with it.”

Librarian Horner said she’ll reveal the weight of the pumpkin Tuesday. Students can purchase a guess by reading a book, she said. Also next week, students will vote on a carving design. As for a name for the oversized gourd, the early favorite is “Tiny,” Horner said.

Saunders said when the school’s done with it, she’ll use the pumpkin to feed her chickens or compost pile.

But it won’t likely become pie, she said. “It’s in the gourd family. It’s not a true pumpkin, but the stuff you buy in a can isn’t either. It’s Hubbard squash.”