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A champion Napa pumpkin grower dishes on gourds, gardens and Mondavis

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Gary Miller's giant pumpkins

Gary Miller of Napa finishes planting his crop on May 1, 2014. Miller planted over 30 pumpkins in 2014. He is one of the largest growers of giant pumpkins in the world, with an impressive number of record-breaking pumpkins and a high demand for his seeds.

You might say Gary Miller has a passion for pumpkins. For about 30 years, this Napa farmer has been growing giant ones and winning competitions, including Half Moon Bay's 2013 World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off with a 1,985-pounder.

Raised on a farm in Ohio, he says he followed the famous advice given to generations of Americans. "I went as far west as I could, got my feet wet and backed up a little," he says, chuckling. And here in California he stayed and found a new calling when wine royalty — the Mondavis — came to him with a pumpkin request.

Q: The first question has to be ... Why?

A: Growing giant pumpkins is like crafting a marble sculpture. It takes a whole year of planting a seed crop, then turning the soil, starting the seeds and finally planting small seedlings in rich, well-managed earth. It is a work of heart and devotion, and I have spent my whole life respecting and working in the ground.

Q: How did you get started?

A: Margrit and Bob Mondavi knew I was a landscaper. They asked me if I would grow a giant pumpkin for an event they were having at their home one October. I had never heard of giant pumpkins so I went to work researching the concept. I continued to supply the Mondavis with pumpkins until Margrit's passing in 2016. It was an honor and a privilege to know this amazing couple.

Q:  What kind of seeds do you use? Do you still host a seed exchange every year?

A: A Nova Scotia grower, Howard Dill, bred the Atlantic Giant Pumpkin, likely using seed stock from Goderich Giant Pumpkins. We missed last year's seed exchange but plan to do this event in January 2022 at my wife's Jessel Gallery. I started because I wanted to make sure the local growers had the chance to get the best seeds. They like seeing Jessel's artwork, and then we hand out seeds. They bring food, and we make it a party.

Q: Can you share a growing tip or two?

A: Only one pumpkin per plant, so try to pick the first one that is the right shape. Cut off all the other flowers so the energy goes to the one pumpkin. Also, if you have room to have chickens, incorporate chicken manure into the soil.

Q: Do you put in long hours during the April-October season?

A: The little devils are not real easy to grow. I've got 37 right now. Your friends call and ask you to dinner and you say, "I don't have any time."

Q: Are you hoping to beat your personal best of 1,985 pounds?

A: For some reason, I am stuck there. The pumpkins are a live entity that are constantly in need of something. I hand-feed my pumpkins a mixture of nutrients, all organic. I basically spoon-feed them where the roots are working.

Q: How do you deal with the heat and drought challenges?

A: I have learned to conserve water and work around the heat. I have nothing besides my grapes and pumpkins growing on my land. I've let my lawns go. And I'm not giving the pumpkins a great deal of water. I'm just trying to keep moisture on the leaves.

Q: How do you get a giant pumpkin to the competition?

A: The pumpkins are lifted up using my tractor and loaded onto my pickup for transport. Used to be six or eight guys. We would slide a tarp under one side and then the other. It takes forearm strength. It's obviously new people each year. They're not going to want to help you again! We're now using hoists.

Q: What weigh-offs are on the pumpkin circuit?

A: Almost every Saturday in October has a GPC (Great Pumpkin Commonwealth) weigh-off. There's Elk Grove (Oct. 2); the Nut Tree (Oct. 9) — they haven't had anything like that in 25 years; Half Moon Bay is a Monday (Oct. 11); and Tom Borchard's farm in Salinas (Oct. 16).

Q: What happens to these big pumpkins at the end of the season?

A: I sell the majority of my pumpkins. A lot of people like to have a pumpkin outside their storefront. Seeing a giant pumpkin makes everybody a child. The old stories about the pumpkin carriage ... they come to life in your mind.

I have an agreement with many customers to return the seeds once the pumpkins are done. I feed the chickens with the excess pumpkins.

Q: Has cultivating pumpkins for so many decades put you off pumpkin? Or do you still love a nice slice of pumpkin pie?

A: Absolutely, with a good vanilla ice cream. The little sweet pumpkins — 5 pounds or so — make the best pies.

Pumpkin contains a variety of nutrients that can improve heart health, including fiber, potassium and vitamin C. The antioxidants in pumpkin may also prevent LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) from oxidizing in the body, thus lowering your risk of heart disease.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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