Backyard Giants: Book Review

– Posted in: Book reviews, Vegetables

Having written about arcane gardening topics myself (colchicums, anyone?), I understand the challenge of writing to an audience that is unfamiliar with the jargon and techniques of one’s subject, an audience with no emotional investment in the topic at hand. Giant pumpkins are brobdingnagian in size. Their growth rate is astonishing. But neither fact could hold my attention for long, if I didn’t care about the people involved with these giant fruiting bodies. In Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever, Susan Warren succeeded in making me care about these growers of giant pumpkins.

A Writer’s Perpsective

As a writer, I appreciate how she found the drama in this activity, and how she brought the characters to life with her choice of details and anecdotes. It was especially interesting to see how Dick and Ron Wallace, father and son, reacted to the same challenges in different ways, and how they both interacted with Cathy, Dick’s wife and Ron’s mother. And I think Warren was smart to show how the non-pumpkin growers in the various families profiled coped with the growers’ obsession. It helps you make connections between this particular obsession and obsessed people and their obsessions in general.

A Gardener’s Perspective

As a gardener, I paid careful attention to every step of their growing method, evaluating it against my own experience and reading. I could sympathize with Dick’s temptation to take the seed shell off the cotyledon. (Been there, done that–except for me it was lilies.) I heartily approved of the trouble they took to prepare the soil, and was impressed that they knew about mycorrhizae. I applauded their use of compost tea. But when they hauled out the chemicals at the first sign of trouble, boy, did I grimace. The policy seemed to be “Spray first, ask questions later.” And if spraying “solved” the problem, sometimes they didn’t even bother to research the cause. It seemed odd that the growers were moving towards organic means of fertilizing their plants, but still resorted to the harshest poisons to treat diseases and insects. Olaf Ribeiro, a plant pathologist, seemed to share my sentiments:

It frustrated Ribeiro, who had found that pumpkin growers would often discard his advice when they didn’t see immediate results and go back to carpet-bombing the plants with chemicals.

Ribeiro helped me understand the disconnect I saw between how the growers amended the soil organically and yet depended so heavily on chemical solutions:

But Ribeiro also realized the pumpkin growers’ panic was driven by the fact that there was only a limited amount of time in the season. One lost week of growth could put an end to a whole year’s worth of hard work and dreams.

Given that the plants “already were under huge stress as they strained to grow unnaturally large fruit,” perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to grow a competition-worthy giant pumpkin by strictly organic methods, but I’d sure like to see someone try.

I easily get wrapped up in the fate of a book’s characters, so perhaps it’s not too surprising that my eyes welled up when the Topsfield champion was announced, and a tear actually trickled down my cheek when a new world record was achieved at the Frerich’s Farm weigh-off. So when the champion vowed to do even better next year, I had to find out: did he win two years in a row? No. It turns out Joe Jutras set a new world record, with a squash weighing 1689 pounds! I was happy to hear that. I liked Joe and he sure had his share of problems in the book.

This could be a good gift for an older child or young teen, accompanied by a packet of Dill’s Atlantic Giant pumpkin seeds, but only if said youngster has access to a fairly large piece of ground to garden in. Otherwise, stick to sunflowers for your giants.

Other links of interest

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In its own way, frost may be one of the most beautiful things to happen in your garden all year . . . Don’t miss it. Like all true beauty, it is fleeting. It will grace your garden for but a short while this morning. . . . For this moment, embrace frost as the beautiful gift that it is.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

Joyce in Huntsville December 5, 2007, 1:54 pm

I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read this book yet, but am getting it for my husband for Christmas.
Since Olaf is my brother-in-law I do think I have a pretty good idea of what the book is about. He entertained all my friends and our family this summer sitting around the pool at my wedding with his fond stories of the pumpkin growers. We did see the PBS special and thought about the stories we had heard poolside….and smiled to ourselves.

Mary October 27, 2007, 2:01 pm

What a great book! Because I love the Autumn Season I have a great fascination for pumpkins. I aspire to grow a “Giant”.

Thank you!

Mary :>)

Susan Warren October 25, 2007, 10:09 am

Kathy — Thank you for reviewing Backyard Giants –and especially for appreciating that this wasn’t just a book about a strange gardening hobby, but about the people pursuing a passion. There was plenty of humor and kookiness in their object — the biggest pumpkin in the world — but I wanted to get across that these were real people with the same hopesanddreams of anyone, and they showed a lot of integrity and grit suffering disappointments and coming back year after year to try again.
I was tickled you zeroed in on Olaf — I, too, thought he provided valuable insight into the growers from an outsider’s perspective. And before you lose heart about the growers’ chemical leanings, you should know that at Frerich’s Farm this year in Rhode Island, Connecticut grower Matthew DeBacco (a youngster of about 18 or 20), grew a completely organic pumpkin. It would be hard to get one to World Record weight without chemicals — at least for now — but Matthew managed to produce a very respectable 581-pound pumpkin without the help of pesticides, fungicides, or chemical fertilizers! (He placed #32 in the competition.)
Thank you again for taking the time to read the book and mention it on your Web site.
All best wishes,

Annie in Austin October 24, 2007, 9:51 am

Kathy, you and Carol are now making me consider reading this book, if it’s about people following their passions. I like movies about baseball better than real baseball since the movies emphasize the characters rather than the game. Maybe reading about people who care about giant pumpkins could be more interesting than trying to grow them.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Kathy Purdy October 24, 2007, 6:23 am

TC, no I didn’t see that PBS special. Interesting that it centers around Cooperstown, not too far from my neck of the woods. It covers different growers than Backyard Giants does.

MSS–it is a good book for a situation where you have to do a lot of waiting. It is engrossing without being difficult to read, and ends very upbeat.

Martha, I’m convinced just about anything can be made interesting, or at least help you understand why others find it interesting, if the writer is skilled enough. I’m always curious to see how other writers do it.

Carol October 23, 2007, 10:04 pm

Kathy… I agree that one of the things that kept me reading this book was how the author made me care about the people who were growing the pumpkins. I wanted them to break the world record, to have that kind of success with their pumpkins. Well done review!

Carol at May Dreams Gardens

mss @ Zanthan Gardens October 23, 2007, 9:18 pm

If the book is half as interesting as your review of it, it will certainly be worth checking out.

Martha Stoodley October 23, 2007, 8:28 pm

Kathy –
I have written a garden colum for this Thursday’s newspaper ( on the Plectranthus genus and wonder if anyone will think they are one-tenth as interesting as I do.

Arcane? It’s up to the reader. Some of us are needle headed enough in our plant love to appreciate articles on topics like colchicums and plectranthus.

Keep up the good writing!
Martha in Muskogee

TC Conner October 23, 2007, 7:58 pm

Hi Kathy,

Did you happen to see “Lords of the Gourd,” a PBS special on giant pumpkins?

Robin (Bumblebee) October 23, 2007, 4:05 pm

Hi Kathy,

This book is in my 2 foot tall eading pile. But frnkly, I have read so many reviews and commentaries on this book that I’m starting to wonder if I need to bother reading it! 🙂

Besides, it might give me big ideas. (Har har.)

–Robin (Bumblebee)