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A really big pumpkin, but not there yet
By Nancy Gier | Daily Herald Staff

Thomas McIlvaine of St. Charles has grown his largest pumpkin weighing in at 709 pounds, 50 inches wide and 38 inches tall. He has been growing them for 12 years, always using Atlantic Giant pumpkin seeds.

 

Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

Little bumps on the skin of the pumpkin are marks left behind of where it sweated. Yes, pumpkins sweat!

 

Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

Stem of Thomas McIlvaine of St. Charles's giant 709 pound pumpkin. He has been growing them for 12 years and had a 591 pounder in 2004.

 

Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

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Published: 10/22/2008 12:10 AM

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Thomas McIlvaine, of St. Charles, got a lot of comments earlier this month when he had his prized pumpkin on the back of his pickup truck along a busy pathway during the Scarecrow Festival.

"It's real, isn't it?" asked Susan Hamada of St. Charles. "It's bigger than you," she said to her five-year-old daughter, Emily.

McIlvaine's pumpkin could outweigh a normal-sized kindergarten class.

At 709 pounds, this 2008 model broke his previous record of 591 pounds which he set in 2004. McIlvaine takes his pumpkins to Didier Farms near Lincolnshire for an official weighing the first Saturday in October.

McIlvaine overcame early problems to achieve his success, such as having to plant later this year due to cool, rainy weather. "I like to get my seeds in before Mother's Day, but this year I planted June 4," he said. He attributes the size of the pumpkin to a "lucky guess" because he used more "chemicals" this year in his irrigation system. The chemicals, nutrients derived from fish and seaweed, protect the plant from diseases and too much heat from the sun.

A lucky guess maybe, but not beginner's luck. He's been experimenting for 12 years. And despite his recent success, he's not about to retire or be complacent. At the Scarecrow Festival, he sported an orange T-shirt that said, "I'm still waiting for the great pumpkin."

"I'm shooting for one that's about 2,000 pounds," McIlvaine said. "I think the record now is about 1,800 pounds." (According to bigpumpkins.com, the world record was set by a Rhode Island grower in 2007 with a pumpkin that weighed 1,689 pounds.)

"It might be another five years," he added optimistically.

Plenty of room

McIlvaine grows his pumpkins at Wasco Nursery in St. Charles, where he is an assistant manager. He has worked there since 1974, when he was still in high school.

Preparations begin during the winter, when he searches online for the best seeds and chemicals.

This year, he paid $400 for three seeds because they were part of the same family that produced a 1,500 pounder. But they didn't grow anything.

"It's like entering a casino," he reasoned about the risks of competitive pumpkin growing.

When the expensive seeds failed, McIlvaine turned to his own personal stock of seeds from his 2004 success.

"They keep if you keep them dry," he said.

Home grown did the trick. McIlvaine's main vine was 32 feet long and he had side vines that were about 25 feet long. Five pumpkins developed, but only one survived. He cut off the casualties and concentrated on the survivor. From June 4 on, McIlwaine kept a detailed, handwritten diary on the growth and harvest of his prized pumpkin.

The pumpkin will be on display at Wasco Nursery through Oct. 30. He takes it home at night and on weekends to keep it safe from vandals and thieves.

McIlvaine and his pumpkin will be part of Sycamore's pumpkin festival parade that starts at 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 26.

After Halloween, he'll destroy the pumpkin, but not before he examines the insides and the walls in order to gain more knowledge on proper cultivation.

"It keeps me busy during the summer," McIlvaine said of his hobby. "I try and set a goal for myself every year, to see if I can grow a bigger one."