The official biggest pumpkin of 2020, weighing 1,174.8 kilos, was grown in Great Britain by Lymington twins Ian and Stuart Paton, and has been displayed in London's Covent Garden throughout October. However the amateur grower of giant vegetables Manuel Planells has set a new record in Andalucía with his 456-kilo pumpkin. To find the biggest pumpkins in the region you have to head east to Almeria where Manuel Planells lives and grows pumpkins as big as the one that was turned into Cinderella's carriage.
Manuel, when and why did you start to grow giant vegetables?
I have a home in La Cañada de San Urbano, close to Almeria, and have a vegetable plot behind the house. I have always admired the British and American growers who produce monster pumpkins around Halloween time. Nine years ago I made contact on social media with a Spanish grower and this made me modify my hobby and achieve new horticultural goals.
I imagine the dry climate must be a struggle.
Exactly, the climate here is similar to Malaga, possibly a bit drier, so it's important to get the watering right, especially if you're growing an organic product. I have to try and store rainwater for the irrigation. In the autumn I get excited to see the results of my investigation and effort.
What do you mean by 'investigation'?
To create giant vegetables it takes skill to select the seed. It is a technical challenge for me. My finca is a sort of green laboratory. Over the years I've improved my pumpkins through selective breeding. It is important to determine and select seeds that can give vigorous, disease-resistant hybrids. The results of these experiments can only be seen in the autumn: the size and shape, colour, texture and number of seeds.
And now you have discovered the secret of growing Goliath pumpkins...
Yes and not just pumpkins. My record for tomatoes is 1.7 kilos so far and I'm trying to improve the size of my carrots, cabbages, beetroots and watermelons. I grow all of them especially to compete. However I can't take part in all the competitions because the climate in southern Spain makes crops ripen faster so they can be ripe by August. The most important giant pumpkin competitions, the Spanish Pumpkin Contest in Valtierra (Navarra) and the prestigious competition in San Feliu de Codines (Barcelona) are held in October and November respectively.
In any case the pandemic this year hasn't allowed you to compete.
Unfortunately no, because of the pandemic most of the large horticulture events have been cancelled. I haven't been able to take part in any this year so my biggest pumpkin was displayed in the central market in Almeria and then sliced up and given away.
That was a generous gesture.
I like to share. I send seeds to people who cultivate pumpkins or want to 'have a go'. Many people started growing vegetables at home during the lockdown. Vegetable growing keeps you busy and is therapeutic. In addition it is literally very fruitful.
Manuel, tell me about this year's harvest.
My biggest pumpkin was about 700 kilos lighter than the Paton brother's giant. Even so it became Andalucía's heaviest-ever pumpkin at 456 kilos. I have used the Patons' seeds in the past and am in touch with other growers in the UK.
Do you eat your own pumpkins?
Of course, my wife regularly makes dishes using pumpkin. She'll be making sweet cakes and 'pebetes' for All Saints Day. However bigger pumpkins aren't as sweet, although my giant water melons are as sweet as the smaller ones.
Are you and other giant vegetable growers bitter rivals?
No, of course not. It is a very supportive community despite the fact we compete with each other every autumn. On the Spanish site www.giganteas.com we share some of our secrets and give advice. Some of us are also members of the European association egvga.eu and clubs in the USA.