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It’s the Great Pumpkin…Maloney Elementary!

By Miriam G. Mazliach

November 4, 2011

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

Once the students had settled down Anderson and Tomasic took turns addressing the crowd, who upon spotting the giant pumpkins had “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, she re-potted them before planting them into the soil in her yard around May. “They grow very quickly,” said Tomasic, pointing out the two truly large pumpkins she had 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 had originally been 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 her advice on growing “Atlantic Giants” and she had generously sent him some seeds. From then on, Mrs. Anderson used seeds retrieved from her own previous year’s crop to grow pumpkins in her backyard.

Anderson described the pumpkin’s growing cycle to the students using terms such as DNA (genetic code) and photosynthesis, the process by which plants receive energy from 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 had dug a 3 ft x 3 ft x 3 ft hole in their backyard garden area for the pumpkins to be planted in. Eventually, a stem grew out, followed by leaves, vines, flowers, and then the little pumpkin 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 a potential for the 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 they had installed outside, to load it onto the back of their truck. “This is the biggest pumpkin we’ve ever grown,” announced Mr. Anderson.

To ascertain its weight, Mr. Anderson had first driven 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 then subtracted the numbers to determine the pumpkin’s actual weight.

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

In response to a student’s question about how to carve these pumpkins, it was explained that because of their size and being that the skin might be a foot or so 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 their own hand at growing pumpkins in the future, if they choose.

Surprisingly, these humongous pumpkins have just a normal amount of seeds which are only slightly larger in size than the typical ones we find in pumpkins from supermarkets or farms.

“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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