Gourd wars: Friendly rivalry forged over fat pumpkin prize

In the garden wars for Alberta's most gargantuan gourd, the competition can easily turn rotten. Literally.

Growing large pumpkins — really, really large pumpkins — comes with oversized growing pains.

"They start to rot and you don't even know," said Donald Crews, a Lloydminster bricklayer who has been growing colossal squash for nearly 20 years. 

"It's like a sag at first and, then, it turns to mush and you're like, 'Darn it.'

"And if you don't have everything quite right, they just explode. It looks like someone put a little firecracker in the middle." 

'Pull out every last stop'

This week, for the third year in a row, Crews took home the grand prize at the Great White North Pumpkin Weigh-Off in Smoky Lake, Alta. The annual fair showcases mammoth watermelon and squash but the pumpkin is the real draw.

Entries are hoisted by crane and heavy machinery, and carefully judged by weight, girth and peels.

Crews prized pumpkin came in at 1,474 pounds. Even so, he figured his friend and biggest competitor —  Eddy Zaychkowsky of Airdrie — had it in the bag.

"I was on track for 3,000 pounds," Zaychkowsky said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

Donald Crews/Twitter

But Zaychkowsky's pumpkins often get too big for their own good. His submission this year caved in on itself. 

"Don is a consistent grower. I'm an experimental grower," Zaychkowsky said.  "I generally do lose because I blow mine up."

It's really hard to keep these pumpkins together but one day, we will. -Eddie Zaychkowsky

In his quest for the world record, Zaychkowsky has struggled with more than his fair share of sags and spontaneous explosions. 

"When we grow these things, we are looking for 50, 60, 70 pounds a day so we can get our weights up, so you walk a very fine line," Zaychkowsky said. 

"And with our weather here being so volatile, it's really hard to keep these pumpkins together, but one day we will." 

The rivalry between the two men is a friendly one. They share growing tips and swap seeds so they can cross-pollinate their biggest gourds in the hopes of growing even bigger ones.

They also take to social media to share their successes with a large online community of gardeners obsessed with the orange fruit.

Submitted by Donald Crews

Pumpkin growing is no place for sore losers.

"Don won't take the accolades. He won that weigh-off fair and square," Zaychkowsky said. 

"I'm just as happy for Don when he wins as if I had won myself. I respect him as a grower and as a friend ... it's not about the money. " 

Crews is just as gracious. He knows even the most carefully tended pumpkin patch can yield frustration.

"You can grow an 800-pounder pretty easy, but Eddie set the bar so high, I mean, I'm going to have to hit 2,000 pounds to have a chance anymore. 

"You've got to pull out every last stop that you can." 

'I was hooked'

Crews tests his soil religiously and warms the earth with heating coils. He coddles the little gourds as they pollinate, wrapping them in warm woolen blankets to protect them from the elements.

He feeds them with automated water systems and fertilizer injections. Even so, his pumpkin patch is overgrown with stubborn weeds and root rot has snuck in. 

Smoky Lake Great White North Pumpkin Weigh-off/Facebook

He started growing pumpkins as a lark.

"My wife had this little packet of seeds and she was going to plant it in my mom's garden as a practical joke and the little packet of seeds sat there on the counter for two to three years.

"I finally planted it and I got this 60-pound pumpkin. 

"And I looked at that and thought, this thing grew from the size of a baseball to the size of a basketball in a day. What the hell?

"I was hooked." 

Without help from fellow pumpkin growers like Zaychkowsky, Crews said he would have been lost.

"It's not really a competition to beat the other guy, but at the same time, it's a little extra kick in the butt and I know for Eddie, it's likely exactly the same.

"Every year you figure out what you did wrong last year, and you just keep on going and they just keep getting bigger."