When you think of pumpkins, you might think of Halloween, trick-or-treating and scary movies.
If I were to mention giant pumpkins, you probably wouldn’t think of medical scientists from Louth, but that is exactly who is behind the mammoth pumpkins that have appeared in Fallon & Byrne’s three stores this month.
The three pumpkins, located in the Rathmines, Exchequer Street and Dun Laoghaire Fallon & Byrne outlets, have generated quite a bit of interest with the public.
If you visit any of the locations, you are sure to find people queuing up to pose beside the fruit or place their children on top of them for a comical photo op. Instagram is cluttered with photos of the gourds, especially since the Exchequer Street store also features regularly-sized pumpkins depicting eerily accurate portraits of the Presidential candidates.
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Whoever grew these giant pumpkins is surely a very accomplished farmer, I thought when I received the images of the pumpkins from Fallon & Byrne. However, when I arrived to interview Patrick Sullivan, I was shocked to discover that he is, in fact, a medical scientist, specializing in hematology, working at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. Giant pumpkins are just his hobby.
Green thumbs, it seems, run in the Sullivan family. Patrick tells me that his mother is a florist with a Masters in Horticulture from UCD, his father is a retired dairy farmer, his cousin is studying for a Ph.D. in Crop Production Science and his grandfather owned a plant nursery and garden store.
It was Patrick’s grandfather, Sean Douglas who owned Douglas Nurseries in Ardee, who started him growing pumpkins. As a family tradition, the Sullivan’s and the Byrne’s, Patrick’s cousins, would go to their grandparents’ for Halloween fancy dress party. When Paddy was six, his grandfather gave him and his three cousins pumpkin seeds to get them interested in plants and farming. That year, Sean told the children that the whoever grew the largest pumpkin would win €20 and thus, pumpkin growing became their hobby.
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"When I was 11, I discovered the giant pumpkin variety, but I kept it a secret for about six months. On Halloween that year, everyone else’s pumpkins were tiny, around the size of a cup and then I whipped out mine, which was around the size of the one you’d get in a shop, which was notably good for us!” Paddy told me during our interview.
That, he said, was his first real foray into giant pumpkin growing, as he knew if he could get them to the size of shop-bought ones, he knew he could eventually grow giant ones.
For the past sixteen years, Paddy has been perfecting his pumpkin growing skills. The largest one he ever grew weighed in at 416kg in 2016, but it’s his cousin Michael that holds the record for Ireland’s largest pumpkin, which was 529kg. The two have been in constant competition since that first year of pumpkin growing, with Paddy only besting his cousin the past two years –Paddy says that he definitely grew the bigger pumpkins when they were kids, but he now finds it difficult to beat Michael.
Pumpkin growing has brought the family together, Patrick believes. “Some people don’t have much in common with their cousins, but I’m extremely lucky to have this peculiar hobby that brings us together. Michael’s twin also used to grow pumpkins for many years so he can get involved with us too; there’s a whole lingo to pumpkin growing. Our other cousins don’t want to know at all, we’re just the weird cousins! It’s the same with my siblings; they all understand the lingo but they’re happy enough to leave us to it. They’re great for helping me out when I need it though!”
In order to further their giant gourds, Paddy and Michael set up Giant Pumpkins Ireland to encourage other Irish pumpkin growers to compete for the title of Biggest Pumpkin in Ireland. Every year, they hold a Weigh-Off to determine the winner; the past few years, the Weigh-Off has been held in the Irish Military War Museum and Family Park in Collon, Meath.
“Between myself and Michael, we compete in the Experienced Growers category, because we’ve been growing them for so long. Then there’s an open-ended novice category for others who want to get involved and we have a prize fund for that as well.
"This year, the Quinn’s from Kilcock in Meath won in that category. They are three young boys under the age of 10 and their dad sorted them out with giant pumpkin seeds, which is similar to how we started. They had a 200lb pumpkin at the Weigh-Off and they won the Novice Grower category. There was a €100 cash prize for that, so they were delighted! The venue can accommodate massive groups of people, so the Museum staff organize a bouncy castle, a pumpkin picking patch, an obstacle course and a playground for the public as part of the day.”
For such a competitive hobby, Patrick follows a strict schedule to ensure his pumpkins are as big as possible. He plants ten seeds in pots at the end of April, then transfers them to his polytunnel in May. By the end of May, the plants with the slowest growing vines have been culled, leaving Paddy with three pumpkin plants that he hopes will lead him to victory come October. Around the summer solstice, the plants are pollinated, either by bees or Patrick will do some cross-pollination himself with flowers from different pumpkin plants, allowing him to tie together his scientific background with his hobby. From then, he watches them grow exponentially until it’s time to harvest.
“This year, I pollinated the big one on June 29th and from then until October 4th, it put on 405kg, which works out at around 30lbs a day. Over 7 days, you can see it go from the size of a marble to the size of a basketball.”
Throughout this 150 day growing process, Paddy says the pumpkins require significant care, including being tucked in with a blanket until September so that they don’t wrinkle in the sun. Other things he must watch out for include rodents and dogs, as they can set him back and put him out of the running for the coveted title.
“Last year, my dog ate one of the pumpkins, two weeks after it had been pollinated. Now the dog has since passed away, totally unrelated, but out of curiosity, he took a bite out of it, so of course, that pumpkin was ruined. It was another fortnight before I could get another blossom, so I’d lost basically a month of growing and I was really chasing my tail.”
He recounts a story of another pumpkin grower in Cavan, who’d kept his dog away from the pumpkins for their entire growing season. When he went to harvest the pumpkins, the dog ran in and jumped on the pumpkin which then exploded – mice had made the pumpkin their home, so it had rotted from the inside out, ruining the pumpkin entirely. Pumpkins, it seems are a perilous business!
After the Weigh-Off this year, Paddy transported his three giant pumpkins to Fallon & Byrne, where they are currently on display until October 31st. Fallon & Byrne, he tells me, have been showcasing his pumpkins for 8 years now.
“The Weigh-Off used to be at the Pumpkin Festival in Virginia County Cavan. One day, I got a phone call in the run-up to that and it was Fallon & Byrne looking for a giant pumpkin. The Bank Holiday ran early that year and I still had a pumpkin, so they put it on display and that was in 2010.”
Patrick and Micheál here with Patrick's guess the weight Giant Pumpkin!🎃 #TheScalesDontLie pic.twitter.com/qTurVafTBQ— Giant Pumpkins IE (@GiantPumpkinsIE) October 8, 2017
Now that his pumpkins are on display all over Dublin, Paddy has discovered how fulfilled his hobby makes him feel. Not only is it something that has brought his family together over the years, but it also puts a smile on everyone who encounters the pumpkin.
“The biggest thing for me is that there is no point to grow the pumpkin and keep it out the back of my house just for me to look at it. I’m delighted that people rock in to Fallon & Byrne, buy a coffee and enjoy the pumpkin. You can’t look at it and not smile, and I get a real kick out of that. If nothing else, I put smiles on peoples’ faces. It’s really fulfilling. Even today, you saw so many people walk in the door, whip out their phone and take a picture. I get to share the exploit with so many people who enjoy the pumpkin too.”
As long as he can put a smile on peoples’ faces, he’ll be growing pumpkins, Paddy tells me. “Nothing beats a giant pumpkin for crowd appeal!”
Paddy's pumpkins will be on display at all three Fallon & Byrne locations until November 1st. You can follow Giant Pumpkins Ireland on Twitter.