If you’ve ever wandered through your county or state fair, you’ve likely seen the massive, award-winning vegetables on display, from thousand-pound pumpkins to beets as big as a great white shark.
Maybe you dream of having a blue ribbon pinned on your own tasty tomatoes or yard-long zucchini. But even if you don’t plan on entering your vegetables into a fair, you can still learn from these award-winning gardening pros.
Here are some of the pros’ secrets for growing enormous (and enormously tasty) vegetables you can be proud of right in your own backyard.
Start with high-quality seeds
If there’s one thing giant-vegetable growers take very seriously, it’s seeds. For them, this means starting with special vegetable seeds that have a track record of producing large, award-winning fruit.
Even if you’re not trying to grow giant pumpkins or tomatoes, you can still take this idea to heart. You can do everything right, but your vegetables will only be as good as the seeds (or seedlings) you plant.
Seeds vary depending on your goals. Do you want your tomatoes as soon as possible, or is intense flavor more important to you? These and other factors all come down to seed varieties.
So how can you tell which seeds are best? Zero in on heirloom varieties, which are seeds that have been bred for your specific climate and that historically produce tasty fruit. With time, you may even begin to save your own seeds from garden-grown vegetables you’re especially proud of; but until then, you can source seeds tailored to your region from local farmers, growers, and specialty gardening shops.
Give your plants space
Giant-vegetable growers also obsess over how much space their plants have to spread out and grow. Giant pumpkins, for example, require at least 400 square feet per plant!
“Spacing is very critical,” says Danny Dill, president of giant-pumpkin seed company Howard Dill. “You need a lot of vines and foliage to feed and support something to grow 500 pounds.”
OK, maybe you don’t have enough space in your backyard to dedicate to one single plant, but the general principle still applies. It’s best not to overcrowd your garden, especially if you’re planting in raised garden beds or containers. Plants need room both underground and above ground to absorb water, nutrients, and sunlight. They’re more likely to survive and thrive if they’re not competing with their fellow plant brethren for resources.
When planting your vegetable seeds or seedlings, be sure to follow the spacing recommendations, which typically range from 12 to 72 inches and beyond, depending on the variety.
Get the timing right
One of the biggest decisions you’ll have to make as a gardener relates to timing: When is the right time to plant?
For one, it depends on where you live, since climate and weather patterns vary across the country. Some vegetables—notably broccoli and kale—are tough enough to withstand a hard frost, but not all are.
Generally speaking, wait to plant most vegetables outdoors until you’re sure the last frost has passed, especially delicate vegetables like tomatoes and peppers. If you’re eager to get started or you live in a place where the growing season is shorter, consider starting your vegetable garden indoors, at least temporarily.
You can easily start your garden inside with items you have around the house, including disposable cups and permanent markers for labeling.
Drill or cut a hole in the bottom of one cup for drainage, then nest it inside another cup to prevent water from leaking out. This YouTube tutorial from Roots and Refuge Farm shows how easy this DIY project can be.
Prepare your soil
Maybe you roll your eyes when you hear or see mention of a soil’s pH level. But soil preparation is absolutely critical for growing vegetables, both big and small.
Before you begin planting, do a little research on the type of soil your specific plants like best. Tomatoes, for instance, prefer slightly acidic soil, while pumpkins prefer neutral soil. Check your soil’s pH level, then add amendments to help achieve your desired goals.
In addition, you’ll likely want to integrate compost or composted manure into your soil for added nutrients. And be sure to spread these additives throughout the soil, not just where you’ll be planting your seeds or seedlings. Certain plants, such as pumpkins, squash, zucchini, and cucumbers, have vines that spread and may root down into the ground well beyond its original spot.
“The soil nourishes the plant, and it is a complex system, not just a growing medium,” says Jef Treece, outreach chair of the Pacific Giant Vegetable Growers in Oregon. “It’s more productive to think about feeding the soil than it is to think about feeding the plant.”
It’s important to get watering right. Too much water and you’ll drown your plants. Not enough water and you’ll thwart your plants’ growth. Also keep in mind that many vegetables are made almost entirely of water, so if you want big, healthy vegetables, you’ll need to be consistent with your watering.
“This is often easy to control, using some type of irrigation—drip tape, sprinklers, or garden hose,” says Treece.
Generally speaking, a good rule of thumb is 1 to 2 inches of water per week. Make sure your plants have good drainage, too, especially if they’re in pots or containers.
Vegetable gardening isn’t a “set it and forget it” hobby. Your vegetables and herbs require some amount of regular maintenance, and that includes pruning. It can feel intimidating and borderline counterproductive to start hacking off healthy leaves and shoots. But here’s the reality: Pruning helps focus your plant’s energy and resources into producing large, flavorful fruit, rather than on growing into huge, leafy shrubs. Giant-pumpkins growers, for instance, often prune their plants to encourage the growth of just one or two massive pumpkins.
Pruning serves other purposes, too. It helps keep your plants from becoming overgrown, which can make them more susceptible to pests and diseases. Pruning also allows for better airflow around the plant, encouraging the soil to dry out between waterings.
Similarly, it’s important to thin out your seedlings at the start of the planting season. Maybe you dumped the entire seed packet in a row, without paying any attention to spacing. When these little seeds start to sprout, things are going to get awfully crowded. You might be inclined to let all of these new plants grow—they made it this far, after all! But it’s really best to thin them out. Crowded seedlings will compete with one another for resources, leading to a disappointing yield in the long run.
Pull weeds and add companion crops
You already know how quickly weeds can take over—one minute, your soil is bare, and the next, it’s covered in pesky weeds. Keep an eye on your garden at all times, performing regular inspections for both weeds and bugs. And yes, you must get out there and be judicious about pulling weeds every day, says Wes Brittenham, farm and landscape manager at the award-winning Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm in Albuquerque, NM.
He also recommends planting companion crops, or plants that are mutually beneficial to each other. A companion crop may help deter pests, balance the soil, increase nutrient consumption, and conserve water. As a bonus, they may add a little extra beauty to your vegetable garden. Good examples including planting marigolds with melons, as well as planting nasturtium with cucumbers, beans, or celery.
“You may find a combination that works for you, like planting borage near your tomatoes,” Brittenham says. “Not only are the leaves and beautiful blue flowers edible, but they deter the sphinx moth that lays the eggs that become hornworms on tomatoes.”
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Lastly, but no less important, every giant-vegetable grower knows that 6,000-plus-pound pumpkins don’t simply appear overnight.
“I like to call it the 60-60 rule,” says Dill. “The first 60 days or so to develop a strong plant, the last 60 for the pumpkin or vegetable itself.”
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