Chris Qualley is mostly your normal type of guy. Grew up in Lakeville, now lives in Otsego. A wife, four kids, and a puggle named Dolly. A solutions manager at St. Cloud Financial Credit Union, which isn’t the sort of job title that begs explanation from the people he meets. Recently organized a funeral for a hamster named Pumpkin. Pumpkin would fit neatly in a Kleenex box, but the real pumpkin, Chris Qualley’s great pumpkin, the heaviest ever grown in the state of Minnesota, weighed in at 1,918.5 pounds in 2018. It was a very big pumpkin.
Chris reared the trogglehumper only four years after his initial foray into giant pumpkins. He got into the pastime when he and his brother-in-law’s mother made a bet over who could grow the bigger pumpkin, a challenge like the Norse gods might have issued to one another. The mother did not know what she was up against, for Chris set to the internet to learn what he could do to absolutely trounce her.
“I went to bigpumpkins.com and discovered the world of giant vegetable nerds,” reminisces Chris. “I explained my case to them, and before long I’d been invited to another Minnesotan’s giant pumpkin patch. My wife thought I was crazy, driving an hour away to see another man’s garden, but Scott Steil and I quickly hit it off. He’s still kind of my mentor—my pumpkin Miyagi, if you will.”
Chris implemented Scott’s lessons in full, and so grew a 50-pound behemoth. He won the tray of pumpkin bars that was at stake handily, but for a true champion, so paltry a trophy could simply never satisfy. The giant pumpkin bug had burrowed itself beneath Chris’ skin.
“After that, I got into the hard stuff,” confesses Chris. “I learned every secret, every in and out to growing giant pumpkins. People are very forthcoming with that information on the net, because they rarely get to discuss their hobby anywhere else. I finally bought Dill’s Atlantic Giant seeds from someone online, which can easily fetch anywhere from $500 to $1,000 apiece if they’re from a proven record winner.”
The process Chris employed to go from seed to state record is rather straightforward, so you can easily do it yourself at home. First, germinate the dear seed in an incubator for one week beginning on April 15, controlling carefully for temperature, light exposure, and humidity. While your seed sprouts, dig a 4-foot-by-4-foot hole in your backyard (Chris has three), line it with a 24-foot heating coil (Minnesota’s normal ground temperature is inhospitable toward giant pumpkins), and fill the hole with a soil comprising a 300-pound mixture of bone meal, blood meal, fish meal, and kelp meal, or whichever organic detritus you have determined will deliver the ideal ratio of nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, manganese, boron, calcium, and other essential nutrients to a pumpkin’s roots—and remember, without calcium, you are absolutely lost. Build an 8-foot-by-8-foot miniature greenhouse as well.
Having transplanted your aspiring seed to its new home, lovingly tend to the 700 square feet of land that it will eventually take up while ensuring each node on its sprawling tendrils is buried so as to enable it to take root, a task which only ought to take three to four hours a couple of times a week. Be sure to give your pumpkin 100 gallons of water a day—Chris prefers to use groundwater, because he would rather not pay for city water with money that could be used for more important things such as mortgage payments, food, and replacement hamsters. “These plants are gluttons,” he says.
Do all of those things, and within 110 days you’ll have a pumpkin that could have stunt-doubled for a late-career Marlon Brando. Now all you’ve got to do is move the thing to where it can impress people. “The endgame isn’t about horticulture,” explains Chris, “it’s about shipping logistics. I built a custom 12-foot gantry hoist that lifts a metal ring with straps that go under the pumpkin. Once it’s on a pallet in the back of the truck, it’s ready to go.”
If Chris would only apply his horticultural acumen to something productive, like drugs, he could make a small fortune. Giant pumpkin growing is not without monetary gratification, however. “I just sold a pumpkin last year, with transportation, to someone for $10,000,” says Chris. “I’m not sure if I should tell you who they are, though.” It is good to deal with discretion in such delicate matters.
There is also a nice sum of money to be won if your pumpkin is the biggest at the Stillwater Harvest Fest, where Chris’ came to prominence. Expect stiff competition. The gourds there have the highest average weight of any finalists at any giant pumpkin competition anywhere in the world, and last year someone came only two pounds shy of smashing Chris’ record.
But if you’re doing it all for the money, you would be better advised to do something else. A purely mercantile spirit will never compete with Chris’ passion, which is so great that it’s not even limited to pumpkins. He currently holds the Guinness World Record for the biggest carrot, a Lovecraftian thing that grew for nine months to weigh in at 22.4 pounds. He has grown a 132-pound watermelon, a 50-pound rutabaga, and a tomato that weighed more than his youngest child when she was born. If you, just starting out on your giant vegetable adventure, are Rocky Balboa, then Chris is Captain Ivan Drago with a Gatling gun.
“I’ve always been a competitive man,” Chris says. “I can’t play softball anymore. I’m getting too old, and I’ve got kids. I never thought I’d say this a few years ago, but growing giant vegetables is like a sport. There’s a great sense of camaraderie, but at the end of the day I want to be the one standing at the top of the podium—because if I’m not up there, someone else will be.”