Chester man's giant pumpkins wow neighbors, win awards

CHESTERTOWN - Several motorists driving past Dave and Darlene Schaefer's house recently have stomped on their brakes in response to a bewildering sight: three looming orange orbs scattered on the lawn - pumpkins that are hundreds of pounds each and have a larger footprint than a refrigerator.Residents of Pine Street, however, know all about Dave Schaefer's unusual hobby: he grows giant pumpkins for relaxation, for display and competition.In the center of Schaefer's lawn is his prize this year, a giant pumpkin that's about 500 pounds and bright orange, the best hue he's grown yet."That's my baby," he said Sunday with pride.But that giant orb is less than half the weight of his largest, a 1,082-pounder hehauled in his pickup to Oswego in 2005 for the city's annual pumpkin festival - Schaefer's giant gourd won first place.Darlene Schaefer said she enjoyed the astonished expressions of people they passed on the highway that year."We'd stop for lunch and a people would gather, ask if it's real, and have their picture taken with it," she said.His pumpkins routinely grow so large, Dave Schaefer said, that it takes a hydraulic boom to lift them into a truck. In prior years, Stephenson Lumber, Don Lambert Excavating and Murphy's Lumber have accomplished the task. Schaefer works as a construction contractor in the area.Schaefer grows the pumpkins in two 40-feet by 40-feet gardens, with each hosting only two pumpkins. That expanse of land, he said, is required to provide enough nutrients for the giant orbs.Schaefer launched his hobby in year 2000, when his brother Dan of Clifton Park sent him a package of giant pumpkin seeds, which he had purchased after seeing them offered on a website.The first several years, Dave Schaefer grew pumpkins ranging in weight from 100 to 200 pounds.Then in 2003 he read an article in a gardening magazine about how to grow them for maximum size. The article referred to a book on the subject, which Schaefer bought and studied its tips.Then Schaefer got serious about his hobby.He learned that to grow pumpkins 400 to 1,000 pounds or more, gardeners have to use special methods - which he followed.Schaefer started pruning and "training" vines, burying a main stem carefully to prompt the plant to grow additional roots that burrow into the soil and draw out water and nutrients.Additional plant growth is cut back to direct all the plant's energy into growing the pumpkin as large as possible, he said. During peak growth time in August, a pumpkin can grow up to 25 pounds per day with these methods, he added.Schaefer's approach at first included using standard 10-10-10 fertilizer.Several years later, though, a switch to organic fertilizer yielded the huge contest-winner. Schaefer got some chicken manure from a poultry farm and worked it into the soil.The result was the 1,082 pound goliath.His hobby takes patience and dedication, Darlene Schaefer said, noting that during growing season, Dave is out in the garden most all evenings nurturing the plants, chasing off insects, and removing weeds. Off-season, Schaefer trades growing tips and seeds with other giant pumpkin growers.The giant pumpkins have pose an attraction to wildlife, both animal and human, Schaefer said. One year a deer or two feasted on one 400-pounder, eating it entirely within several days.This year, another giant pumpkin was victimized by two-legged wildlife. Schaefer had hauled one of his four giant pumpkins several weeks ago to the Main Street Ice Cream Parlor in Chestertown for a a lawn display. Within a day, it was rolled off the hill by an intoxicated man - the vandal was on his way home from a downtown tavern - and it was smashed from its impact on Main St., Schaefer said.Despite such setbacks, Schaefer loves his enterprise."It's kind of a crazy hobby," he said with a smile.

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