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LOOK OUT, CHARLIE BROWN. How one man grew the Great Pumpkin

FROM the road there isn't much to distinguish Don Flemming's farm from a hundred others in this northwestern tip of New England. But behind the barn, where the grazing lands begin, there's a small plot of unusual ground. For one thing it is strewn with old auto tires and fenced in with a fine plastic mesh. Last year it even brought a measure of world fame to the dairy farming community here - and, says a satisfied resident, ``for a few days we were more than just the neighboring town to Stowe [the well-known ski resort].''

What caused the stir was the Great Pumpkin Don Flemming grew among all those old tires. When it was placed on the scale down at the pumpkin weigh-in in Topsfield, Mass., last October, it hit 604 pounds. That was enough to make it the World Pumpkin Confederation's champion for 1987.

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Now for an American to produce the champion pumpkin, against the regular strong challengers from the rest of the world, including far-off New Zealand, is not unusual. But New Englanders are not expected to be prominent among them. Their growing season is simply too short. And for someone like Mr. Flemming, who lives way up in ski country, to even try was considered laughable.

What makes the tale even more astonishing is that Flemming isn't a professional grower. He was a building contractor until he retired a few years ago.

So how was he able to raise pumpkins so successfully?

Well, that's where the tires come in. And he did do a few other things that are out of the ordinary, too.

He knew from his contracting experience that a house sited on a southerly slope is warmer than others. He learned from neighbors that full morning sun is considered slightly more beneficial than the afternoon variety.

So he had the bulldozers come in and grade his plot so that it slopes gently to the south-southeast.

To enhance the growing climate still further, Flemming surrounded the plot with a net fence that filters the wind down to a pleasing breeze. Then he brought in the old auto tires. ``Maybe a hundred of them. I didn't count,'' he says. These were placed two and three deep in short rows here and there around the plot.

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Anyone who has put his hand on an auto tire that's been lying out in the sun knows how hot it can get. By day's end these low tire ``walls'' or ``islands'' had enough stored heat to radiate out extra warmth all night long.

You might say they fooled the pumpkins into thinking they were growing down in New Jersey or some similar place where giant pumpkins are more commonplace.

Back in 1986 these climate modifiers proved themselves in an important way. That year, the Flemming farm had a frost as late as June 11 and as early as Aug 25, a mere 10 weeks later.

Even so, Flemming grew a 530-pound monster that earned him the New England title and the heightened respect of everyone in the pumpkin-growing world.

Here was someone who started out with an 80-pounder the first time he tried growing giant pumpkins, in '84, jumped to 300 pounds the next year, and now was topping 500 pounds - an awesome size whether it wins the top prize or not. Even so, few thought Flemming could ever win the world championship outright. But the Morrisville resident had one further wrinkle to try out that took him all the way to the top.

At the suggestion of Paul Zabriskie, an irrigation expert in nearby Burlington, he added soaker hose to his armory. Soaker hose is sometimes called leaky hose, because water seeps evenly out of the hose throughout its length.

Because pumpkins - like many other vining crops - send roots down into the soil wherever they crawl, the soaker hose, crisscrossing the pumpkin plot six inches below the surface, is ideal. Not only could it be used to irrigate, but also to feed the growing vine with liquid fertilizer when necessary.

Flemming used the new ``tool'' to good effect. This is how he grows his giant pumpkins:

The previous fall, liberal quantities of cow manure are plowed in. The following spring the soil is tilled, and 1,000 feet of soaker hose is buried five to six inches deep in parallel rows about two feet apart. Then the tires and the net fencing are brought in.

Pumpkin seeds are started in peat pots the last few days of April and put out under plastic canopies about 10 days later. Several plants are set out (10 this year).

Most are culled until the most vigorous two or three vines are left to set fruit. When fruits reach softball size or slightly larger, they, too, are culled, leaving only one fruit per vine. As it happened, 1987 was a dry summer in much of New England, but the Flemming pumpkins with water and Peters 15-30-15 fertilizer at their roots were not aware of it.

After his triumph, Don Flemming was approached with offers to buy his Great Pumpkin. But he turned them all down. He had other ideas. That Halloween the kids of Morrisville had the biggest jack-o'-lantern they'd ever seen.

Soaker hose, such as Hydro-Grow, Wet-Flex, and Aquapore, is available from many sources: Gardener's Supply, 128 Intervale Road, Burlington, VT 05401; Nitron Industries, PO Box 400, Fayetteville, AR 72702; The Urban Farm Store, 2833 Vicente St., San Francisco, CA 94116.

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