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They baby their giants

Though many homeowners, especially those stuck in the city, often hesitate to grow even tomatoes or salad greens, a quiet, unassuming subculture exists in the unlikely subdivision.

Alongside backyard playhouses, chicken coops and hot tubs, giant pumpkins weighing in the hundreds of pounds are being tended, often taking over entire lawns, all for the sake of bragging rights. Ordinary men who go to work and make small talk by day are transformed into serious competitors at the very mention of an orange squash.

Make no mistake, when it comes to pumpkins, size matters.

Central Point resident Brad Foster, who found himself addicted to gardening great pumpkins two years ago, decided to try growing one of the giants as something fun for his kids to watch and perhaps for carving into an oversized jack-o-lantern.

Months later, he found himself traveling several hours north for a giant pumpkin weigh-off — at which his squash tipped the scales at 460 pounds — and with a toolbox of ideas for a bigger pumpkin the following year.

An IT specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Foster says his unlikely hobby comes with a handful of skills that go with the territory — from understanding pollination and inventing special fertilizer "teas" to finding the best weigh-in events and constructing hoists to move the pumpkins.

This subset of a larger community of pumpkin growers speaks its own language come summertime. Some growers are secretive about their growing techniques while others are eager to help beginners — within reason, of course.

Medford resident Ron Register started a few years before Foster but took last year off. This year, he doubled the weight of his inaugural squash by mid-September.

"I grew a 103-pounder the first year and entered at a weigh-in that Harry & David did one weekend," says Register of his early attempts.

"On the Friday before, at 11 o'clock at night, they had a woman on Delta Waters trying to get a 700-pounder out of her backyard. I was so ashamed I didn't even want to take mine in."

Relenting after the 100-pounder took over his summer, Register took his squash — the only entry small enough to be picked up — and took the prize for "most beautiful pumpkin" that year.

Biggest or smallest aside, Register says the ready community and the fun of trying something a little unusual lured him to try again.

"I was hooked," he admits.

Last year, Foster started with three pumpkins, cutting the smallest of the trio from life support midway into the growing season, which starts "after tax day" under indoor grow lights.

The pumpkins are planted in the ground after Mother's Day. Heredity is important, and family tree-style charts depict how big pumpkins are expected to get. Foster missed the 500-pound mark last year, but this year's pumpkin was only a dozen pounds shy by early September.

"My goal is to grow a 1,000-pound pumpkin," he says, with a look of determination in his eyes.

Almost an addiction of sorts, growing great pumpkins is not for the faint of heart, says Foster. Too much potassium can split, or even "explode" a giant squash. Also tricky is transporting them, which requires a 16-foot hoist to load them onto a pickup truck.

Warren Buscho, an Applegate resident whose largest pumpkin tipped the scales at 942.5 pounds, says the rewards for growing great pumpkins are few — bragging rights and salvaged seeds. Most growers, he noted, do it for the love of the "sport."

"It can really take over your summer — and your yard," notes Buscho. "But it's a lot of fun."

Foster, eyeing a remaining patch of grass in his backyard, says he'll probably grow three or four pumpkins next year if he expands his pumpkin plot.

Register plans to figure out how to increase sunshine to a small plot that once served as a backyard. He laughs at the relative uselessness of such a hefty supply of soon-to-be pumpkin guts.

"Sometimes the prospect of a 285-pound watermelon sounds better than a 285-pound pumpkin, ya know?" he says with a laugh.

While somewhat frivolous, admits Buscho, giant pumpkins make for a good time and good stories.

"My son grew an 800-pounder one year and hauled it to Canby," he says. "It had a blemish on it, so it couldn't be entered. But it was a really beautiful pumpkin!"

Like many giant pumpkin growers, Register can turn philosophical, saying his pursuit is more about the journey than the results.

"There's so much negative these days, and the economy is in a funk," he says. "I try to have something fun, and the pumpkins keep me going.

"It really becomes kind of addictive "… and it really makes for interesting conversation."

Brad Foster, an IT specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensic Lab in Ashland, became addicted to growing giant pumpkins two years ago.