By Dan Rahn
University of Georgia
The 15-year-old Lumpkin County ninth-grader's winning pumpkin sagged the scales at 350 pounds while Charles' third-place pumpkin weighed in at 300. Charlsie Thomas, a White County 4-H'er, had the second-place pumpkin at 323 pounds.
"We've grown pumpkins for the contest for three years now," Melissa said. "The biggest one we've had until now was a 92-pounder last year."
Big differenceWhere did they find the 258 extra pounds?
"We just learned more about pumpkins every year," she said. "We planted them differently and just did a little extra this year."
The "little extra" included planting at the highest point in the family garden, layering an extra-deep planting hole with potting soil and fertilizer and providing trickle irrigation.
Plenty of water and fertilizer are half the battle in growing giant pumpkins, said George Boyhan, a horticulturist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.
The keys"The main thing is to select a single flower fairly early in the season and pick off all the others on the vine," Boyhan said.
Combining that, he said, with three other keys -- selecting the right variety and providing plenty of water and fertilizer -- provides the best chance of growing a truly giant pumpkin.
The Tritts, who live on a family farm with their parents Preston and Linda, must have found the combination.
"These are the biggest pumpkins we've had in recent history," said Jeff Buckley, the state 4-H program assistant who coordinates the contest.
Little big pumpkinFor the record, a 350-pound pumpkin is a baby jack-o'-lantern in cooler climates. The world record, grown in Oregon, was 1,385 pounds. But in Georgia, a 350-pounder is impressive.
Weather conditions aren't kind to pumpkin growers in Georgia, Boyhan said. In south Georgia, the hot, humid summers make disease pressures almost unbearable. Of the top 25 pumpkins in this year's contest, 21 were grown in north Georgia.
The 45 pumpkins entered in the 2004 contest averaged 81.8 pounds, Buckley said. The top 10 averaged 190.5 pounds.
PrizesMelissa's giant brought her the first-place prize of $100. Second place was worth $50 and third place $25. Everyone who entered this year's contest got T-shirts, provided by the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
The contest is limited to 4-H members. But that includes more than 180,000 school-age youths in Georgia.
Growing giant pumpkins isn't for impatient people, though. It takes a long time to get from a little seed to the great pumpkin -- 130 days for Atlantic Giant, which accounted for nine of the 10 biggest pumpkins this year.
"We didn't know they would be really big until about a month before we picked them," Melissa said. "We knew they were going to be big then, but we didn't know how big. We were hoping and praying they would reach 300 pounds."
A proven variety, plenty of fertilizer and water, a single flower, hope and prayer -- evidently, it's a potent formula.
(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)