The giant pumpkin contest that revived a community
On a rural road near the north Auckland town of Helensville, a group of residents are fostering community spirit by reviving an annual giant pumpkin contest.
Words: Michael Andrew Photos: Yolanta Woldendorp
In October 2021, Rimmer Road resident Stella Carter had just given birth to her first daughter, when she started growing a giant pumpkin. An Air New Zealand flight captain, Stella had returned home from hospital with her new baby, Lyla, to find an envelope containing some pumpkin seeds, which a neighbour had recently delivered. Not long after, she came across a post on the neighbourhood Facebook page.
It explained how everybody living on the street had received seeds in the hope they would plant them, grow them, and enter the resulting pumpkins in a street-wide competition in May the following year.
Stella thought the project could be a bit of fun and decided to give it a go.
She germinated her seeds in trays and planted the seedlings in her best vegetable garden. But having only one water tank on the property to get through the long, dry summer, Stella’s husband, James, did not approve of using too much of the precious resource on a pumpkin. Giving her crops some seaweed fertiliser, sheep pellets and manure, Stella went on with her life as a busy new mum, doubtful about the prospects of her parched pumpkin and unsure whether anyone else would be participating. What she didn’t know was that giant pumpkins are a serious business on her street. Almost all her neighbours had sown their seeds – and some of them were growing to win.
THE LETTER DROP
Giant pumpkins have a rich history on Rimmer Road, a rural 3km-long cul-de-sac just south of Helensville. Over a decade ago, annual competitions were a significant date on the calendar, a chance for residents to meet, catch up, have a drink and some food, and showcase the bulbous fruits of their labours. But after the couple organising the events moved away, the competitions went on hold indefinitely. However, last year, longtime resident and former street champion Willy Coenradi decided to rekindle the tradition. He gathered some giant pumpkin seeds, put them in envelopes and delivered them to every mailbox on
the road. “Pumpkin seeds stay viable for a long time,” he says. “I had some leftovers from the pumpkin that I entered in the competition 12 years ago. About two years ago, I planted them and got a couple of good sized pumpkins out of them, and then collected the seeds out of them and did the letter drop.
“I think it’s really important, especially in rural areas, that you know who your neighbours are. The old competitions were very successful at bringing the community together.”
The call for a pumpkin competition, however, went largely unheeded; only one neighbour, Yolanta (Yolly) Woldendorp, responded favourably to the project.Assuming everyone else in the community wasn’t interested, Willy dropped the idea, even neglecting to grow a pumpkin himself. Yolly, meanwhile, was determined to make it happen. She put a post on the neighbourhood Facebook page, explaining the letter drop and spreading the word for a giant pumpkin party the following autumn. She then sowed her own seeds, eventually planted three seedlings in various places between her vegetable gardens, and tended them diligently over the following months. But as her pumpkins grew, she became aware of prying eyes scrutinising her methods from over the fence.
“All the neighbours around me began spying on each other’s backyards, trying to see who’s pumpkin was bigger,” Yolly says. “It turned into this sort of game. I put mine next to the hose so they could get lots of water, but my neighbour Chris’ pumpkin got hardly any water and his was getting bigger and bigger. I couldn’t believe it. Fortunately mine overtook his some months later.”
There are many theories about the most effective way to grow giant pumpkins. In the US and Europe, where competitions are treated with the utmost gravitas and are known to yield pumpkins weighing over 1,000kg, techniques vary from filing seeds with sandpaper before sowing to playing music to a pumpkin as it grows. However, one thing every grower agrees on is that pumpkins need a stupendous amount of nutrients to satisfy their monstrous growth rate, which can be over 20kg per day in the right conditions. Having researched this, Yolly worked tirelessly to keep her pumpkins well fed, digging in sheep pellets, blood and bone, compost, seaweed fertiliser and manure from her horses. She even gave the pumpkins a homebrew liquid fertiliser consisting of horse manure and comfrey leaves every two days. “I found I got quite obsessed with it, actually,” Yolly says.
“It was during the Covid lockdown and over summer me and my partner still pretty much kept to ourselves. So I just kept going out and fussing over it and giving it fertiliser tea. I became quite competitive.”
But she soon discovered a major flaw in her strategy when two of her three pumpkins stopped growing. “I put in three plants thinking I’ll grow three big ones and then I’ll train them to go out into the paddock so they’ve got plenty of room to move. However, the only pumpkin that took was the one with no weed mat around it. The other two, which I’d planted in holes in weedmats, were just sad little plants. I was horrified to see that weed mats really do destroy the earth underneath, so that was a big lesson for me.”
Despite the setback, Yolly’s remaining pumpkin continued to swell to an ostensibly unrivalled size, gradually earning the praise and envy of her neighbours. When it was time for the competition in May, Yolly was fairly sure she’d fostered a prize-winning squash.
The sky was sunny and cloudless above the reserve at the end of Rimmer Road, when the pumpkins began to arrive. They were, as expected, all shapes and sizes. Some were smaller than grapefruit, others were so big they had to be heaved in by two men, and a few were abominable creations that looked like failed lab experiments. Many were dressed up in elaborate costumes. But the most important thing to the competition judges, was that the whole neighbourhood had shown up.
“It was an amazing turnout,” says Yolly, who not only organised the event – along with her neighbour, Kelly – but was selected to be the MC for the day. “Even the teenagers living on the streets had grown pumpkins to compete with their mates. We set up the hay bales as a stage, there were two BBQs going and everyone sat on chairs or picnic blankets and waited in anticipation as the pumpkins were brought in.”
Wanting to make the event particularly special, Yolly asked her friend Jools Topp of the Topp Twins to attend the contest and judge the winning pumpkins. Jools, a former Rimmer Road resident, jumped at the chance to attend another street pumpkin competition after so long. “I was just so happy to be involved. I’ve had a few health issues with my cancer and it was just nice to socialise without the pressure. It’s more than the competition, the pumpkin part of it is about bringing everybody together. It’s so simple yet so beautiful.”
Also judging was Willy, who, having received little initial interest in the pumpkin growing project, had no idea so many people had participated until the day of the competition.
“I was very surprised by the turnout,” he says. “The overall effort was very good. It’s so important to have these types of things. So many people live in the big cities and don’t even know who their neighbours are. This is a good outdoor activity, everybody has a bit of a laugh and it’s done in good spirits.”
As one of the event organisers who was there from the start of the day, Yolly was in a prime position to assess the competition as more pumpkins arrived and were placed on the haybale podiums. She scanned their ranks, encouraged to see her contender looming over the others.
“My pumpkin was still the biggest and I was sure I was going to win,” she says. However, just as the last pumpkins had arrived and the judges were getting ready to cast their votes, a behemoth appeared out of the blue. “It was right at the end, and bloody Stella and James Carter show up with their giant pumpkin, and my balloon popped – I knew then and there I was not going to win,” Yolly says.
Despite spending comparatively little time – and water – on her pumpkin, Stella’s had grown to become the heaviest on the street. When her pumpkin was finally placed at the podium, the judging began. To recognise the efforts of the residents – all of whom were first-time pumpkin growers – Yolly and the judges created multiple award categories: the biggest, the most beautiful, the smallest, and the most creative. At 43kg and six months old – the same age as her daughter – Stella’s pumpkin won the award for the biggest. She assumes her success has a lot to do with her pumpkin’s placement in her best vegetable garden. “I think it must be our soil – I’ve looked after the soil quite well for the six years we’ve lived there.” The award for smallest went to a pumpkin the size of a tennis ball, and the most creative was a pumpkin dressed up as an M&M. The most beautiful went to a tiny pumpkin that had come from a seedling Yolly had given away to a neighbour.
“She grew it in depleted soil and it turned into this tiny wee thing. She painted it black and put sparkly decorations and a little pink tiara on it and called it Baby in reference to the film Dirty Dancing.”
“There was just so much fun and creativity. It was really nice for some of the people that hadn’t been there for long to have this street party and see this sense of community and fun and joy and get to know each other, especially after the last two years of covid.”
Exactly a year after the seeds of those pumpkins were sown, the Rimmer Road residents are preparing for another season of pumpkin growing. Willy has collected the seeds from Stella’s winning pumpkin – which, until recently was sitting on display on her front porch – and will arrange another letter drop. Stella says she’ll definitely be entering the competition again, this time with a spare drum of water on hand and now one-year-old Lyla helping out.
While Yolly also kept her pumpkin as a trophy, it met a sad and messy end earlier in the year. “I was keeping my pumpkin because I was so proud of it after the competition. But unfortunately, the damn thing exploded in my barn, oozing festering pumpkin innards all over the place. It stunk the barn out for weeks.” However, she was able to save the seeds and will be giving them to neighbours and using them to grow another contender for the 2023 competition. She’s managed to get some great advice from the son of a local pumpkin champion, who recommends starting a pumpkin pit a year beforehand and chucking in everything from fish heads to possums to sheep guts to offal. “That’s what I’ve done. I’ve started the pit earlier and thrown in all sorts of shit.”
With the Rimmer Road residents now tried and tested pumpkin growers, the competition – and size of the entries – is certain to increase this season. The question is: are they ready to take on former Rimmer Road champion Willy Coenradi? “They better look out because I’ll be taking it seriously this time around,” he warns.
THE WORLD’S MOST EXPENSIVE PUMPKIN SEED
Seeds from record-breaking pumpkins can fetch extraordinary prices, with one sold for over $2,300 in 2016 – considered the world’s most expensive pumpkin seed.
It came from a 1,054kg pumpkin that was grown in Switzerland in 2014 by Beni Meier. At the time, it held the world record for weight, according to the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth organisation, until it was surpassed by a 1,190.5kg pumpkin in 2016.