Carla Suehowicz’s blue eyes sparkle and a smile spreads across her face as she says “at my age, this makes me happy.”
The “this” is growing giant pumpkins.
Suehowicz, 69, a retired business teacher at Sonora High School and self-proclaimed competitor, grew a 167-pound pumpkin last year that she named Baby Huey. It came in second at the Farms of Tuolumne County pumpkin and zucchini weigh-off at Hurst Ranch.
“I wanted to grow a 500-pound pumpkin next,” she said.
Suehowicz lives in the Phoenix Lake area with her husband Bill. She was never a gardener. However, Bill, a retired park ranger with the National Park Service and retired Curtis Creek School teacher, has been a master gardener for six years.
Bill often receives emails from the Master Gardeners, which Carla mostly ignores but she happened to open one that told about them selling giant pumpkin seeds.
“I immediately wanted them,” she said, “I told Bill, ‘I gotta have these.’”
Bill told her he wasn’t interested in growing pumpkins, but if she wanted them he’d buy the seeds and she could grow them. Those seeds produced Baby Huey.
Determined to learn everything she could about growing giant pumpkins, Carla Suehowicz drove to Elk Grove in March to attend a Gigantic Pumpkin seminar where she met two pumpkin mentors to have on call during the grow season.
She also “read everything [she] could get [her] hands on.” At the seminar Suehowicz was given pumpkin seeds, which she brought home and planted in peat pots. When the first true leaf sprouted, it was time to plant them in the backyard garden. It was May 18.
Come June, the Suehowiczs had to leave for a planned vacation and asked a long-time friend Karen Patton to pumpkin-sit while they were away. Patton visited the pumpkin patch twice a day to check on the plants and make sure the watering system was working.
“I told my husband we aren’t going anywhere next summer,” said Carla with a laugh, “that’s too much pressure to put on one person.”
Once back from vacation, Carla knew there was “only a very small window of opportunity” to pollinate her pumpkin plants. She hand pollinated in July. Just seven days after pollinating, the plants began growing pumpkins.
As the plants and pumpkins grew, Suehowicz had to select the best pumpkin on each of her plants, aborting the rest, ensuring the one pumpkin gets all the nutrients from the single stalk. Suehowicz’s husband takes zero credit for the pumpkins, but he did build the 1,200-square-foot pumpkin enclosure and hooked up the water system for the plants.
Of the four plants, three produced large pumpkins, “the fourth one was sterile, a bad seed” Suehowicz said.
Like her first pumpkin, Baby Huey, Suehowicz named her three rapidly growing pumpkins and kept a daily journal on their growth. Miss Clementine, Miss Muffin and Miss Molly were putting on 30 pounds a day during the height of the growing season, and Carla was spending up to six hours a day in the pumpkin patch.
“I’d be out in the garden burying vines and adding nutrients and Bill would be grilling dinner on the porch, as the sun went down,” she recalled.
As the pumpkins grew, she knew she had to protect them from the heat of the sun so Bill suspended shade cloths over the pumpkin patch. She measured them daily, stem to blossom, side to side and the circumference, jotting the measurements in her journal and using a calculator on bigpumkpins.com to determine the weight of each.
They grew so big Bill had to make two more gates in the enclosure so she could easily access each of them without treading on the sensitive vines and buried roots.
Carla said she enjoys inviting her friends and friends of her friends to the pumpkin patch.
“I love for kids to come and see them and to see the smiles on their faces,” Carla says.
But when the visitors walk into her backyard and down to the pumpkin patch, their smiles often turn to looks of surprise and sheer disbelief in what they are seeing.
Miss Molly is the smallest of the three pumpkins weighing approximately 687 pounds, Miss Clementine comes in second at approximately 783 pounds and Miss Muffin takes the cake at a whopping 826 pounds.
Suehowicz is proud of her accomplishment. After discussions with one of her mentors about selling gigantic pumpkins she contacted Black Oak Casino to see if they were interested.
“I sent them photos back when they were probably 400 pounds and they were interested in buying them,” she said.
Ed Wickman, executive director of hospitality with Black Oak Casino, says they’re excited about Suehowicz’s pumpkins.
“We’re a fan of her. She’s a sweet lady and the fact that she is local is important to us,” he said. When asked where Suehowicz’s pumpkins will be displayed, Wickman said, “We do an annual giant pumpkin display in the porte-cochere of the casino that is available for viewing all month long but in addition to that we’ll have another display at our West Side Pavillion for our Fall Fest.”
The Fall Fest is a country music concert on Oct. 27 with a craft beer tasting and pumpkin carving demonstration prior to the concert. Suehowicz’s pumpkins will be in both of the displays along with a 700-pound pumpkin grown by the casino landscaping department and two 1,600-pound pumpkins grown by Borchard Farms in Salinas.
Also in the displays will be eight to ten 50-200-pound pumpkins and lots of smaller pumpkins and bales of hay. Wickman and four other people are in charge of carving the two massive pumpkins and the many gigantic pumpkins for the displays.
The carvers haven’t decided if they’ll have a theme for the Casino’s main entrance display “in the past we’ve had everything from bears catching jumping fish, to dragons and a T-Rex, we even had an underwater theme where I carved a giant octopus on a pumpkin,” said Wickman. The West Side Pavillion logo will be carved on one of the pumpkins in that display and the theme is “Fall Festival.” The main entrance display will be set up today and the carving of the pumpkins will start around 10 a.m. on Oct. 26 and go all day and into the evening, says Wickman.
So, with the pumpkins sold and a pick-up date scheduled, Bill Suehowicz began building a large tripod. He followed a diagram sent to him by Carla’s mentor. Along with the giant tripod, a hoist, chains, and straps will be used to lift the beasts.
“I’ll wrap the pumpkins in straps, some over the top and sides and one under the widest part near the bottom,” Carla said and if all goes to plan, the system should lift the pumpkin, onto a flatbed truck. They’ll repeat the process with each pumpkin and they will be transported to the casino.
Black Oak Casino intends to move them from Carla’s pumpkin patch today so Carla will have to skip the Farms of Tuolumne County pumpkin and Zucchini weigh-off at Hurst Ranch on Oct. 20.
Every evening for the past month Carla Suehowicz has walked down to her pumpkin patch to drape a blanket over each of the pumpkins to protect them from the cold.
“They’re my babies. I’m going to have empty nest syndrome” she says, and after a moment, true to her competitive nature adds, “I’ll think I’ll shoot for over 1,000 pounds next year.”
Contact Maggie Beck at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209-588-4527