Willem le Grange claims that talking to his plants is one of the reasons he's succeeded in growing SA's biggest pumpkin for two years in a row.
And it seems the farm manager from Ruiterbos near Mossel Bay in the Western Cape is definitely onto something. He managed to grow a 904,5kg pumpkin, which recently earned him the R30 000 grand prize at the Giant Pumpkin Festival in Heidelberg.
“It feels good to win the pumpkin competition. In my heart, I knew I could win but it was a shock when it was put on the scale and it was more than 900kg,” says Willem (34), who also won the competition last year with a pumpkin that weighed 867,5kg.
While the size of Willem's pumpkins is impressive, they're dwarfed by the current world-record holder: a pumpkin weighing a whopping 1 226kg grown in Italy last year.
Willem says it takes lots of time and dedication to grow these giant fruit.
To start off, the plant needs to be indoors to keep it warm at all times so it's not destroyed by frost. Then in October he transplants his seedlings outside.
“It depends on your location. So you need to see [when the last frost date is]. You must plant after the frost date otherwise you'll plant too early, and it will get frost and die,” he says.
Talking to the plants also helps, Willem says. “I do talk to the pumpkins . . . You spend a lot of time there in the patch."
He nicknamed last year's winner Tornado, but the name of this year's giant squash hasn't been announced.
For the 2021 competition, Willem was determined to grow the biggest pumpkin in the country – so that meant no more fishing weekends or drinks with friends. Even an hour spent watching TV felt like a dereliction of duty.
READ MORE | Meet the food selfie queen! Joburg chef creates amazing face art from ingredients in her kitchen
“Tornado was a jealous old thing," Willem says. "If you didn’t give her enough hours in the day, she’d start wilting on the spot.”
The size and health of the fruit was all that mattered.
“I actually just wanted to see how big the old lady could get,” Willem says.
His Atlantic giant pumpkin set a new South African record last year, tipping the scale at an incredible 867,5kg – a full 5kg heavier than the previous record holder. And now he's done it again, using seeds he harvested from last year's winner that he cultivated from seeds imported from America.
“It took about 170 days to grow her,” Willem says of Tornado. “I immediately saw she was going to be a greedy old girl. At one stage, she was growing 25kg a day.”
He says his girlfriend, Zoey Botha (28), had to stand by helplessly as “the other woman” demanded his attention.
It’s not just a question of popping the seeds in the soil and hoping for the best when you’re trying to grow a prize-winning squash. Before the flower has been pollinated and the plant is still growing, the vines must be buried every day. Later, when the pumpkin starts developing, it must be protected from the elements.
“If it looks like rain or cold, you dress her in something warm. And if it’s hot, you give her a bit of shade. Believe me, pumpkins can be temperamental,” he says.
He laid ground cover on the 100m² patch he’d set aside for Tornado and worked three types of fertiliser into the soil: artificial fertiliser, sheep dung and pigeon droppings.
His record-shattering pumpkins guzzle between 300 and 500 litres of water a day.
“By about day 30 I looked at her and thought, ‘The two of us are doing this together’,” he recalls. “She was large, round and beautiful.”
But like in any relationship, there are speed bumps.
“You go to bed one night and everything’s okay, but then you wake up the next morning and she’s miffed at you. She’ll have holes where rodents have started nibbling at her. That can give you a heart attack. At one point, a hedgehog got hold of her in the night. I had to disinfect the wound and blow a fan on it for a whole day so it could heal. And luckily it did."
He had to resort to using a mechanical lift to get Tornado onto a trailer so he could ferry it to Heidelberg for the competition.
“That was the first time I could make sure she was flawless. You never know, she might have had cracks or rot at the bottom – that would've disqualified her. But luckily my lady was hale and hearty,” Willem says.
As proud as he is of his new record-breaker, he knows he can't hold onto the pumpkin forever. He says he intends cutting up the giant and distributing it in his community.
But Willem does plan on keeping the seeds so he's got something to plant for next year's contest.