The Grabmans of Forest Lakes in west Wichita figure they should live on a farm, given their son Ryan’s propensity for tucking a seed potato into the flower bed alongside the pine and the crape myrtle, and tomato plants amid the euonymus.
But those crops are dwarfed by the sight that greets a visitor to the backyard, which slopes prettily to the neighborhood lake. There, lumbering on their sides under great vines, are two giant pumpkins shining in the sunlight, fantastic aliens in the urban landscape.
Their protective grower, Ryan Grabman, is 12 years old, in his ninth year of gardening and his third year of trying to grow a 1,000-pound pumpkin.
“That’s been my goal,” Ryan said one recent evening after a day of school and football practice. “This year I actually have a chance.”
According to recent calculations – adding together circumference and front-to-back and side-to-side measurements and consulting a chart – his two pumpkins weigh somewhere around 375 and 680 pounds. Neighbors and their friends have made their way to the unfenced backyard to take a close look, along with pictures.
Ryan hopes to haul the smaller pumpkin to the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson on Thursday night and to keep growing the larger one until late October, to enter in a pumpkin contest in Shattuck, Okla. The prize money for the biggest pumpkin there is $1,500.
Last year, the drought wiped out virtually all of the State Fair pumpkin crop – and Ryan’s. There was only one big pumpkin at the fair, and it was no record-setter – 366.5 pounds, just a shadow of the 771-pound winner in 2010.
This summer saw more drought conditions, but wonderful spring weather got Ryan’s pumpkins off to a good start. He started them from seed indoors in a special grow box in late March (“usually it’s in his bedroom so he can keep it safe,” his mom, Shari, says) and moved them outside in early April, protected by a cold frame that he and his dad, Ed, an experimental test pilot at Bombardier Learjet, made.
Father and son also have made their own support system for cradling the huge pumpkins in the process of getting them out of the sloping backyard – which could prove to be a bigger challenge than any that Mother Nature has thrown at the pumpkins in the way of hail, wind, scorching sun, drought, disease and insects.
Ryan got the big-pumpkin bug after reading the 2007 book “Backyard Giants.” He wrote to giant-pumpkin growers and asked for seeds, growing two kinds — No. 960 and No. 1789 — named for the weights of the pumpkins they came from. The 960 is the smallest in the Grabman yard, and it’s orange; 1789 is a white pumpkin with a bit of a sunburn.
Ryan has been an exacting, protective gardener this year after losing his pumpkins to vine borers the previous two years. When he went on vacation with his grandmother in June, the pumpkins were in the care of his parents, and “I had them send pictures every day.”
“And we had to put things by the pumpkins so he could see how big they were,” his mom said.
With good reason. The vines at one point were growing a foot and the bigger pumpkin was putting on 30 pounds each day. You could almost watch them grow. Ryan didn’t recognize them when he got back home.
“He babied these things like crazy,” his mom said.
This year also brought vine borers. Ryan and his dad cut the vines lengthwise where borers were evident to remove them and then taped the vines back up. “It helped it a lot,” Ryan said. He hand-pollinated the pumpkins to guarantee greater success, and stood over them with a hose every day of the hot summer. He fertilized early on and thinks a dose of potassium now will kick 1789 into gear to sprint for the just-before-Halloween finish line.
“Don’t walk in there,” he tells his mother when she wanders too close to 1789.
“He is quite an amazing kid for his age,” his mother says.
Even so, the stem started rotting off 960 a few weeks ago.
“I think it’s fine,” Ryan says, not seeming worried at this point. “I can just take the stem off.”
On Wednesday night, using the lifting ring that he and his dad made of straps similar to seat belts, 960 will be loaded onto a pallet in Ed Grabman’s pickup truck for the drive Thursday to the fair. The pumpkin entries must be unloaded between 8 and 8:30 p.m. at the fairgrounds or entrants have to hire their own equipment, Ryan said. He expects a late night that night.
And, once back at home in Forest Lakes, Dad expects to have to reseed the lawn.