The great pumpkin grower

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Bob Ruff, pictured with daughter Mackenzy, is a prolific pumpkin grower. A member of the Pumpkin Growers Hall of Fame, Ruff has grown several 800-pounders, as well as one pumpkin that tipped the scale at 1,205. Each year, the family grows two acres worth of squash and gourds on their property between McGregor and Garnavillo. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Growing a giant pumpkin is a science. 

Bob Ruff would know. Under the tutelage of his mother, Eileen, who always had a large garden, the McGregor native learned to coax the best plants from the earth. 

“We raised everything we ate,” he reflected. 

In the late-1980s, Ruff saw a large pumpkin in a seed catalog and decided to grow one of his own. One of his first efforts reached 252 pounds, earning Ruff the top prize at Anamosa’s acclaimed Ryan Norlin Giant Pumpkin Weigh-off, held every October. 

Ruff continued to compete, doubling the weight of his pumpkins to 400, then 800, pounds. 

“In the early 1990s, I had an 803-pounder,” Ruff said. “At the time, that was 24 pounds shy of the world record.” 

“We had just had a big rain,” he said, surmising what may have caused the pumpkin to grow so large. “I wish now I would have left it on the vine another week. I might have broken the record.” 

Ruff has grown several more 800-pounders since, and one pumpkin tipped the scale at 1,205. At 718 pounds, the top pumpkin at this year’s Osborne Heritage Days also belonged to Ruff. 

He’s won the Anamosa contest four times, often claimed the biggest pumpkin in the state and, a few years ago, was inducted into the Pumpkin Growers Hall of Fame. 

Ruff said the process starts by selecting the correct variety: Atlantic giant. 

“That’s where all the big ones come from,” he noted. 

Pumpkin growers trade a lot of seeds, in search of the best genetics. Ruff said he’s sold seeds all over the world, but also prefers to buy them because re-using his own can get too complicated. 

Once the plant has taken root, Ruff said they should be limited to just one or two pumpkins, assuring the energy is more concentrated. Leave the area around the pumpkin clear and allow the vines to rise with the pumpkin. 

“You do quite a bit of pruning, or you get quite a jungle of vines,” Ruff said. “You want it open to keep good air flow.” 

Ruff usually pollinates the larger pumpkin plants himself, leaving the bees to pollinate the others. He also fertilizes the plants and utilizes spray to keep away bugs and fungicides. 

Although rain may have contributed to the size of Ruff’s near-record-breaker over 20 years ago, he said too much rain can be problematic. 

“It can cause them to take up too much moisture,” he explained. 

Too much sun is also not good. Ruff said some people even resort to shading their pumpkins, keeping the sun’s hot rays at bay. 

“They don’t like the real hot heat,” he shared. “Eighties are great. But upper 90s for long periods gets hard on them.” 

When they’re growing best, pumpkins can pick up as many as 20 to 25 pounds each day, Ruff said. Today’s largest pumpkins now top 2,000 pounds. That size is attributable to the thickness of the pumpkin’s walls, where all the weight resides. 

“But they can get growing too fast,” Ruff warned. “The bigger they get, the more mature, they can start splitting. Then they’re done for.” 

“I’ve lost some pretty nice pumpkins over the years,” he quipped. 

Ruff said he usually waits to harvest the pumpkin until the day before a contest. A tractor with bale forks is the best way to extract the behemoth, but a group of people can also do the trick by slipping a tarp under the pumpkin and hauling it off the ground. So far, there have been no accidents. 

In all, Ruff and his family—wife Utoni and daughter Mackenzy—grow two acres worth of squash and gourds on their property between McGregor and Garnavillo. 

“There are 11 different varieties of squash and at least that many, or more, of pumpkins,” he added, accounting for thousands of plants at varying sizes. 

Many of those are sold each fall, to grace people’s tables and front porches. The biggest ones always find a home. Some have even been opened up, motorized and driven in water. 

Ruff enjoys the reaction the big pumpkins receive the best. 

“I like seeing the looks on people’s faces, the ‘oohing and aahing,’” he remarked.

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