Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Fall 2022 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.

Growing pumpkins in northern Michigan is no small feat, and so much goes into it that the general public doesn’t see.

It’s not like you can just throw seeds into the ground, water them and wait. No. There’s an art to growing pumpkins, especially the ones that hit close to 1,000 pounds or more.

The good news is that pumpkin experts have united over the years to trade secrets (and seeds), bringing us colorful gourds that brighten up the fall season just as much as the changing leaves.

After they’re grown, harvested and displayed, what do you do with them? Locals say the choices are endless.

Giant pumpkin skill-set

Nic Welty is known as the “crazy pumpkin guy” to giant pumpkin enthusiasts across the nation.

Each year, he not only grows thousands of pumpkins at his farm 9 Bean Rows that he owns with wife, Jen Welty, but he’s also meticulous about the seed varieties he plants, when to plant them and how to care for them before they’re displayed.

He started growing pumpkins when he was 13 years old and won his first national gourd-growing competition at 18.

“If I had nothing else to do I would just grow pumpkins and go fishing,” he said with a chuckle, highlighting that 9 Bean Rows — a farmstead, bakery and cafe in Suttons Bay — takes up too much of his time to just fish and grow gourds.

To breed the perfect pumpkin patch, he trades seeds with people all over the world.

“Genetics is a huge part of it. If you don’t have genetics, you’re never going to get there. Even once you have the right genetics, there are so many things that you can do (to make them giant),” he said.

You need perfect environmental conditions, great pruning techniques, including vine burying that stimulates the root growth early. It’s also important to take care of the soil temperature and fruit, he said.

“If you have the right fruit, and you’re going to be competitive, your pumpkin is going to be putting on 30 to 40 pounds a day,” he said. “Accommodating that kind of growth rate takes planning and wiggling it around. I have some out there in the field that have exploded already.”

Nic has three hoop houses measuring 24-feet-by-96-feet, built almost exclusively for growing giant pumpkins. One hoop house will grow only two enormous pumpkins. That’s because they need a lot of nutrients from the plants around them.

Around April 1 each year, he plants seeds in large pots and transfers them to the field or the hoop houses around June 15, once it’s warmed up enough and after the last frost.

He starts the big ones in five-gallon buckets and the smaller ones in small pots.

“I’ve been breeding some that are more adaptive to northern Michigan,” he said, noting that because it gets cold up north rapidly in the fall, he makes sure to get them in the ground no later than mid-June.

“Pumpkins don’t actually like heat that much, so the northern Michigan climate, other than being short, is very nice for the giant pumpkins,” Nic said.

He’ll start displaying his pumpkins in September, and he’s opted not to sell any of the giant ones — often reaching over 1,000 pounds or more — because he likes to keep them on his property during the fall.

All said and done, he’ll display more than 5,000 pumpkins for patrons to enjoy and buy before Halloween.

About 45 minutes south of Suttons Bay is Pahl’s Country Store in Buckley, and Holly Pahl and her husband David Pahl are also pumpkin enthusiasts. To be successful, you have to be diligent, Holly said.

“Pumpkins can carry a lot of diseases, so you have to watch for the diseases. And they get bugs and little beetles, so you have to watch for that,” she said. “Because we grow so many, we have to deal with raccoons and pumpkins.”

Each year, they grow 15 acres of pumpkins, yielding thousands of various colors and shapes.

“We grew 14 varieties from the little tiny gourd-like ones to the giant with a variety of colors,” she said.

Holly loves the family traditions that pumpkin patches hold for many.

“I remember as a kid, you’d get your pumpkin, your cider and your donut, and that’s fall,” she said, noting that they offer donuts and cider to patrons buying their pumpkins.

Pahl’s Country Store opens for the fall season on Sept. 19 and closes on Halloween. They have hay rides, a corn maze, slides and an apple cannon. Food includes cider and donuts, of course, and a full menu of other concessions.

This year, they’re also adding pig racing to the mix where four small pigs will run on a race track and receive treats at the finish line.

Next-level carving

Pumpkin growers often sell their giant-prized gourds to businesses across the region so they can display them outside their stores.

They typically charge $1 per pound, which can get expensive as some giant pumpkins weigh 1,400 pounds or more.

But other businesses, like Taproot Cider House in Traverse City and Stormcloud Brewing Company in Frankfort, like their giant pumpkins carved. That’s where Ed Moody, of Frankfort, comes in.

He’s known throughout Michigan as “Pumpkin Ed” because of his intricate carvings.

Pumpkin Ed is most proud of the Cinderella carriages he’s made over the years. Thus far, he’s done nine carriages, and he wishes he could do more.

“One year I carved four of them,” he said. “I’d like to do Cinderella every year, but I haven’t the last couple of years, because I haven’t been able to get a pumpkin that works.”

The pumpkin has to be perfectly round with the right density.

When he does get his hands on the perfect gourd, he really does it up, using wheelchair wheels and wood for the base of the carriage.

“I set the Cinderella pumpkin in there, and I carved a door that opened,” he said. “I put a plywood floor in it and step so little kids can get their pictures taken.”

He also carves dozens of giant pumpkins for the Frankfort Fall Festival each year, which takes place the second Saturday in October.

“We get about 2,000 trick-or-treaters each year on Halloween itself. It’s a zoo around here,” Ed said.

The event is huge, with thousands of people passing through the festival that boasts a band, food, trick-or-treating and a parade.

“The growers of the giants bring them up here and weigh them for competition. The only requirement we have for them is they parade them through the parade before we weigh it,” he said.

Aside from the Frankfort festivities, Ed also takes his art to Traverse City. Several years ago, Jen Viren, owner of Taproot Cider House on Front Street, asked him to get a giant pumpkin and carve it outside her restaurant.

“Fall is my favorite time of year. It’s the bounty of the harvest and the community coming together and the colors,” she said, which include pumpkins.

“When I started Taproot, I wanted to make sure I had a lot of family events going on for the community that brought the community together,” she said. “I decided to do a cider day in the downtown area, and brought the press and decided to reach out to Ed to see if he could get any of those giant pumpkins.”

Ed was thrilled. He delivered the pumpkin and carved it right outside the restaurant, gaining quite an audience.

“The fun part is you get to come out and guess how much it weighs and every year we give a gift certificate to the winner,” Jen said.

His favorite tool to use on his carvings is simply a kitchen knife. For smaller pumpkins, he really likes the prefab carving kits sold at grocery stores.

Those looking to make a masterpiece carving should try using a bird’s beak kitchen knife, he said. Also, try using an LED light in place of a candle to light it up, he said.

“You can also put fog machines inside of the pumpkin. It’s really this phenomenal effect to see fog coming out of their nostrils and eyes and mouth and it changes color.”

Eat, or drink, pumpkins

Jen loves offering pumpkin recipes at her restaurant, including food and drinks.

“We’ve done a pumpkin cocktail with a White Russian with a little pumpkin puree in it. We’ve done a pumpkin rim on top of cider — a pumpkin cinnamon sugar rim,” she said.

She also loves cooking pumpkin soup and various squashes during the fall months.

Nic said that the winter luxury pumpkin variety is great for roasting.

“Winter luxury is pretty decent for flesh eating quality,” he said.

He also really likes the Kakai pumpkin variety for the best seeds to eat.

Jen’s family roasts pumpkins each year, flavors them and eats the inside flesh, she said. This year, her restaurant will offer several pumpkin menu items for patrons, including pumpkin, red lentil and coconut soup, and the Smashing Pumpkin cocktail.

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