Oshkosh woman's prolific pumpkin patch produces 2,152-pound champion

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Debbie Gantner and Chuck Hunter pose with Gantner's prize-winning 2,152 lb. pumpking at their rural Oshkosh home.

Giant pumpkin grower Debbie Gantner has nothing left to prove.

The evidence of Gantner's success is on display in the yard of her rural Oshkosh home. Sitting atop a trailer like Olympic champions are three giant pumpkins totaling nearly 5,000 pounds.

Among the colossal trio is Gantner's pride and joy weighing in at 2,152 pounds and the champion of the Wisconsin Giant Pumpkin Growers weigh off at Nekoosa, Wisconsin, besting the second place entry by 337 pounds.

According to the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth website, Gantner's massive fruit is the eighth heaviest pumpkin recorded in the world to date. Sitting atop the leader board is a 2,528-pound pumpkin from New Hampshire.

"I've hit every conceivable goal this year," said the Oshkosh greenthumb. "This was my year and now I'm going to start backing off. I'm not a spring chicken anymore."

Bitten by the bug

Gantner says her passion for pumpkins was ignited over 16 years ago when she and her significant other, Chuck Hunter, visited a Wisconsin Giant Pumpkin Growers weigh-in in Nekoosa.

"We were on a road trip to view the fall colors," she said. "I'm a gardener and love growing things. I got some seeds and was immediately bitten by the bug."

Anyone with dreams of growing a blue ribbon titan on their first try are soon disabused of that notion. Before joining the Wisconsin Giant Pumpkin Growers group, Gantner says she was unable to produce a scale-tipping pumpkin on her own.

"I wasn't going anywhere beyond the 600-800-pound range. I wanted to grow bigger pumpkins and grow for the specific orange coloring instead of the cream or pale orange pumpkins that are typically grown just for weight."

By picking the brains of experienced growers, Gantner was able to make a lot of progress in a short amount of time by applying the tricks of the trade including the right nutrients, fertilizer and care.

Gantner upped her game by fine tuning the feeding and watering regimen of her pumpkins including spoon feeding them a light fertilizer every week and making sure the growing gourds were watered on a consistent basis - not cold well water, but water warmed by the sun in large carts or barrels.

"These pumpkins don't grow by themselves. You have to put in the time and effort into getting big pumpkins," Gantner said.

Throughout the summer, Gantner made sure her burgeoning beauties were protected from the sun by placing white sheets over them. 

"You want to do that in order to keep the skin soft and pliable and to prevent them from getting sun spots," Gantner said.

While it's important for pumpkins to stay hydrated, this summer's record rainfall across the state devastated more than one pumpkin patch.

"If they get too much moisture the plants shut down and just stop growing," she said, "and there's not much you can do about it."

Nearly 2.5 tons of prize-winning giant pumpkins grace a display in front of Debbie Gantner's home on Highway 44 outside of Oshkosh.

Gantner says that most competitive growers place their pumpkins on a sheet of plywood or Styrofoam covered with a fabric which allows the fruit to slide as it grows.

Growers must remain vigilant throughout the growing season, watching for blemishes that could be considered holes during inspection. And it's all about timing too. Gantner says that once the stem starts to rot, it's time to load up the pumpkin and head to the nearest weigh off.

Patience pays off 

Cultivating prize-winning pumpkins also takes plenty of patience. Last year Gantner took a year off from growing pumpkins, instead opting to grow a cover crop on her 3,500-square foot patch. 

"By doing this I improved my organic matter and brought the nutrient level up," she said. 

Prior to this year Gantner had tipped the scales at 1,400 to 1,600 pounds. While she likes to grow big pumpkins, she specializes in growing pumpkins sporting the traditional orange color.

"This is really a man's hobby. They like to go for weight and those are usually the cream or pale orange colored pumpkins. The heavier the pumpkin the bigger the prize money," she said. "I prefer to grow pumpkins for the looks people like." 

Gantner's proficiency at growing pretty, symmetric orange pumpkins was handsomely rewarded this fall when she won the Howard Dill Award at each weigh off contest in which she was entered at Nekoosa, Cedarburg and Kenosha.

The Howard Dill award is given to one individual at each official weigh off site in honor of Howard Dill the creator of the copyrighted Dill’s Atlantic Giant seed. 

"I won the hat trick with my entries which no one has ever done before," said Gantner.

The Oshkosh woman says many serious growers enhance their own genetic lines by cross pollinating in their quest for the great pumpkin.

"I've followed my own genetics breeding for the past 10 years trying to enhance the orange color," she said. "There are a few growers out there like me who concentrate on breeding for the bright orange color."

Getting started

Those looking to join the heavyweight hobbyists are encouraged to join a local or statewide club to get started. Gantner said many club members are eager to help out an earnest novice by sharing pumpkin seeds. 

Coveted seeds may also be obtained by members via seed exchanges and online auctions. Those looking to improve their genetics have plenty of online resources to research the genetic lines of world champions. 

"Everyone thinks they have the perfect seed.but it all depends on how you grow it, If you don't put in the time you won't get the pounds," Gantner said.

Wisconsin growers are well represented on the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth website's tracker. Four Wisconsin growers have a total of five pumpkins ranked in the Top 15 of the heaviest recorded pumpkin: Barlow and Jacobs of Gays Mills, 2,283 pounds, 4th (new Wisconsin state record); Gantner of Oshkosh, 2,152, 8th; Josiah Brandt, Wisconsin Rapids, 2,136, 11th; Pete Midthun, Houlton, 2,091, 13th; and Brandt, Wisconsin Rapids, 2,077, 15th.

Passing the torch

In addition to her pumpkin patch, Gantner also cares for a 3,500-square foot garden. This year's garden produced two watermelons weighing in at 200 and 184 pounds, respectively, as well as a 3-pound tomato.

Don't expect the strapping watermelons to show up at a potluck anytime soon. Gantner says the fruit is on display along with her pumpkins for people to admire and enjoy. Once the show is over her sister's chickens will be the beneficiaries of the melon's succulent pink insides.

Gantner says it's time to scale back operations and free up some of her time.

"I have to literally babysit these pumpkins. We might as well have a barn full of animals because you can't leave as no one knows my watering or feeding system but me," she said.

Gantner says her nephew is now obsessed with raising the giant pumpkins.

"I got him hooked 5-6 years ago. His wife yells at me all the time," she laughed. "I told her it's a wholesome sport and keeps him home. At least he's not sitting in a tavern!"

Any advice for those wishing to chase the title of a world record pumpkin?

"You need to enjoy growing and want to play in the dirt and be willing to put in the time," she said.