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Boy's pumpkin dream is no pie in the sky

Paul Wolfe of Hermantown looks over the giant pumpkin in his family's garden that he is growing. The pumpkin currently weight about 75 pounds. The 9-year-old is hoping to grow a pumpkin that weighs over 800 pounds one day. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 6
Paul Wolfe used these seeds to try to grow a giant pumpkin at his Hermantown home. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 6
Paul Wolfe trimmed some pumpkins off so this plant could focus its energy. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 6
A flower blooms on the vine Paul Wolfe of Hermantown is trying to grow giant pumpkin on in his family's garden. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com4 / 6
Paul Wolfe's best attempt so far to grow a giant pumpkin is still getting bigger in his family's garden. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com5 / 6
Paul Wolfe of Hermantown gazes at a pumpkin that has grown under his care. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com6 / 6

He's read "James and the Giant Peach." He's seen the movie. But that's not why Paul Wolfe wants to grown an 800-pound pumpkin.

Paul, 9, has been gardening since he was 5, and hanging out in the garden even longer.

"He was eating tomatoes off the vine when he was not even a year old," said Paul's mother, Holly Wolfe.

The family: Holly, Jonathan and their son, Paul, moved last fall from West Virginia to 20 acres of garden and orchard just outside Duluth. Walking through their garden, Paul points out zucchini, tomatillos and cucumbers among the many neat rows of food. They have too many carrots; they can't keep track, he said.

Paul read online how to make a giant pumpkin, then clipped off the little ones to focus the plant's energy on those remaining. He experimented with different types of manure. He learned that straw works well because it keeps the weeds down. He covers his pumpkin plants with tarps when it rains.

His two pumpkins are pristine, one bigger than the other, one yellower, and they appear to weigh about 75 pounds each. Large leaves hover over Paul's two pumpkins; in them, he points to the holes. "It's hail damage. I call it insurance," he said, noting the undamaged fruits beneath.

"It's all him. We are completely hands-off with this. John rode a till to the patch, but he does everything," Holly said of her son. She noted that with a birthday in October and fall activities like pumpkin patches and carving, the fruit has significance.

Paul admitted they're good to eat, especially in pies.

"To him, this is a normal life to have a garden and to be out here helping us," Holly said.

Being around gardens as a youngster runs in the family. Jonathan was a flower gardener at age 12, and in college, he moved on to veggies. While Holly grew up on a dairy farm until she was 8, she didn't engage. It seemed like a lot of work, weeding and harvesting, she said.

When she met her future husband, she gave it a shot. "It grows on you," she said. Today, John is more of the gardener, and she's the canner and preserver. "I get more of the fun part," she said, snapping pea pods off and eating them.

Paul pulled carrots out of the ground as he munched on broccoli.

Eating the fruits of your labor are one of the many benefits to children learning to garden, said Duluth master gardener Lorna West. The activity fosters curiosity, encourages delayed gratification and supports the local economy. West has been gardening since she was 10. She grew up to be a preschool teacher, mother of three and grandmother of 10.

"I wanted my own grandchildren to understand where food comes from," she said. So as a master gardener, she is passionate about children understanding the source of their food, and said it's never too early to start.

"As soon as they won't be putting mud in their mouth, 2-3 years old," she said. Her tips are to engage children at their level, set goals only as big as the kid, and to grow items that are easy to harvest and recover well if they come into contact with little feet.

"You're not really growing vegetables; you're growing children, and children who want to participate in that process is what you're cultivating," she said.

Good go-tos are peas, green beans, potatoes, grape tomatoes and cherry tomatoes. The latter taste like candy, and it's fun for children to pick because they're right at their height, West said.

"Potatoes are some of the most fun because it's like hunting for treasure, and they can't plant them wrong," she said.

As for pumpkins, West said they're fun to look at, but a little more fragile. The flowers don't always pollinate well, and you might get too many pumpkins taking up a lot of space in the garden.

Asked if an 800-pound pumpkin could grow here, West said, "With a greenhouse and the right conditions, that could happen. ... (with) superpower soil, you don't know what you can create."

The Wolfes are hopeful. Minnesota gardening is low-maintenance and more fruitful than West Virginia, they said. It's difficult to grow organically there because of pests such as squash vine borers and corn worms, Holly said.

Paul plans to care for and monitor his pumpkins until pie-making season, and he's already looking ahead. "I'm in charge of all squash next year because this year, we didn't do that well," he said.

Any plans for a 1,000-pound pumpkin?

"That might be when I'm 12."

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

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