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November 4, 2011 > It's the Great Pumpkin... Maloney Elementary!

It's the Great Pumpkin... Maloney Elementary!

By Miriam G. Mazliach
Photos By Miriam G. Mazliach

Several hundred excited young students, their teachers and parents thronged to the school's blacktop/playground area October 28 in anticipation of what has become an annual tradition for the past six years at Maloney Elementary School in Fremont - arrival of the great pumpkins!

Through the efforts of second grade teacher Bessie Anderson and fourth grade teacher Sue Ellen Tomasic, nature and science converged to add an educational dimension to the experience.

Once students settled down, Anderson and Tomasic took turns addressing the crowd, who upon spotting the giant pumpkins "oohed and ahhed".

Tomasic explained how she had first started planting pumpkins back in 2004, after her husband ordered the "Atlantic Giant" variety of pumpkin seeds via mail order. For this year's pumpkins, she planted seeds at the end of March. After the seed pods sprouted in April, they were re-potted before their final journey to the soil in her yard in May. "They grow very quickly," said Tomasic, pointing out the two truly large pumpkins recently harvested.

An even more massive pumpkin, grown by Anderson and her family, was prominently displayed between Tomasic's two. Anderson used the same "Atlantic Giant" seed variety. However, her seeds were originally obtained through Christy Harp, a math teacher from Ohio known for growing a 1,500 lb and a 1,700 lb pumpkin. Anderson's husband Mark had contacted Harp to ask for advice on growing "Atlantic Giants" and she generously sent him some seeds. From then on, Mrs. Anderson used seeds retrieved from her own previous year's crop for future plantings.

Anderson described the pumpkin's growing cycle to the students including references to their genetic code - DNA and the process of photosynthesis - how plants receive energy from light through their leaves. "This is an educational experience for the students," she says. "How often do you get to see giant pumpkins like this?"

Anderson explained how her son Zander dug a 3 ft x 3 ft x 3 ft hole in their backyard garden area for the pumpkins. Eventually, a stem appeared, followed by leaves, vines, flowers, and then a little pumpkin that grew bigger and bigger.

"Once they start growing, you have to protect them from the elements, especially the sun," said Anderson. Students chuckled when she told them that her family members placed a large umbrella over the pumpkin to protect it and help keep the pumpkin's skin soft. (Sunlight hardens the skin, so that water can't be absorbed. This creates the potential for a pumpkin to explode.)

Obviously, for both teachers, transporting pumpkins of this size from home to the school took a tremendous amount of muscle and ingenuity. Tomasic told how her two pumpkins were put onto a dolly and then loaded onto a truck to bring them to Maloney Elementary. "We did not weigh our pumpkins, said Tomasic, "but estimate that they are about 300 pounds for the larger one and 150 pounds for the smallest."

Anderson also delighted the crowd recounting how her husband Mark and son Zander had rolled their huge 780 pound pumpkin from the backyard through the front room and then up a ramp installed outside to load it onto the back of their truck. "This is the biggest pumpkin we've ever grown," announced Mr. Anderson.

To determine its weight, Mr. Anderson first drove his truck onto a large weigh scale at a nearby rock yard and recorded the number. Then when he returned with the pumpkin in his truck, he reweighed and, subtracting the tare weight (without the pumpkin) from the larger gross weight (with pumpkin), determined the difference... the pumpkin's actual weight.

In addition to the pumpkin, the Andersons also grew gourds and maize (Indian corn), which were on display.

In response to a student's question about how to carve these pumpkins, it was explained that because of their size and thick skin - 12 inches or more in depth - they are not carved for Halloween. Mr. Anderson added that after the Thanksgiving holidays, when the pumpkins begin to shrivel and soften, he uses power tools to open them up. Seeds are scooped out, dried and saved for next year's planting. The remains are left to decompose as compost, nourishing the garden's soil. Students are also given seeds to try growing their own pumpkins in the future, if they choose.

Surprisingly, these humongous pumpkins have just the normal amount of seeds which are only slightly larger in size than those produced by normal pumpkins.

"Many students don't have gardens and don't know where their food comes from," said Tomasic. "This is just a wonderful experience."

Judging from the joyful expressions on the faces of all the students lined up to touch the pumpkins, they certainly agreed.

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