21Country: LaOtto’s giant gardener
“Most people just grow the giant pumpkins,” Jim Beal explained, “kind of because, without question, is the main interest.”
LAOTTO, Ind. (WPTA21) - Along the side of Jim Beal’s LaOtto home, remain the last fruits — or rather vegetables, of his 2021 harvest.
The retired engineer has shifted his post-career focus to a new obsession: giant gardening.
“We grow for competition,” he told us. “There are like, eight different categories. The main ones are giant pumpkins. There are squash, long gourds, marrow, tomatoes, watermelon, bushel gourds — basically you compete for each one of those if you want to.”
“Most people just grow the giant pumpkins,” he clarified, “kind of because, without question, is the main interest.”
Beal begins growing his plants indoors, in late March.
Before the danger of frost is over, he’s already installed 20x20 greenhouses on his property where they can go into the ground as soon as possible.
“My wife definitely questions the amount of time I spend with them,” he joked. “Cause it’s an excessive amount of time, especially growing eight pumpkins — most people grow up to four.”
The brunt of the work takes place through June and July.
“There’s only a limited amount of time it can grow,” he shared. “During the solstice, when the daylight is the longest, you want to get the plant and get it going, so you can take advantage of those long sun days before the sun starts to dwindle.”
His summer days are spent fertilizing, spraying pesticides, and water.
Too much fertilizer, and the pumpkin can split during growth.
Though pesticides and other sprays protect his vegetables, it makes the food he grows inedible and poisonous.
As for water, giant pumpkins take 100-150 gallons a day!
An amount so staggering, Beal converted his pond into a water reservoir to keep the growing pumpkins satisfied, and controls his irrigation system via wifi.
He’s been successful too, in just the few years he’s spent fine-tuning his hobby.
“In 2017, they have a category Master Gardener, where they throw all the other categories together, and the top person wins,” he said, referring to all his giant vegetables. “I was actually tenth in the world! That was a really good year for me — haven’t matched it since.”
His largest pumpkin to date, was 1,175 pounds.
To put that into perspective, the state record just set this year, was 1,979 by Tom Mobley of Spencer.
It defeated title holder Mark Goodman, of Marion, by nearly two-hundred pounds.
Beal says there’s a big relationship between risk and reward when growing.
Those who set records often push growth to the extreme, and could waste a year of time and resources when the vegetables split during development.
But watching those giant pumpkins grow around 40 pounds a day, was what got Beal hooked in the first place.
“My dad got me started — he actually went to the Pennville pumpkin festival,” he explained. “Guy, gave him some seeds, got him started doing that. I was at his house when he got a 500 pound pumpkin, and that kind of — well, it didn’t kind of — it got me started doing it.”
His father, has also become one of Beal’s toughest competitors.
“At the Fair Oaks competition, we each had a long gourd we took. We knew one of us won — we knew that,” he shared. “But when they actually gave the awards, they gave the awards to: Don Beal, first place. Jim Beal, first place! It was 112 and 3/4 inches — they decided it was too close to call and gave us both first.”
“I could never do that in 20 lifetimes, to get to the nearest quarter-inch on growing something that big… with my dad,” he continued.
But Jim Beal’s biggest claim to fame, may be the time his pumpkins were shown on national TV.
They were hallowed out and used as rafts in the ‘Fall in Love Fest’ obstacle course on The Bachelor.
Beal, and fellow Hoosiers Mikkal Hodge and Kelly Klinker contributed six of the fourteen used in the segment, delivering them from Indiana, to Pennsylvania.
“It was hilarious!” he told us. “It was a lot of fun seeing it on TV and a lot of people got a kick out of it.”
In addition to time and labor, the hobby can also rack up cost.
Beal said a single pumpkin seed fetched over $850 at a local auction.
“I’m not there,” he admitted. “I haven’t even come close to paying that much, but people do pay that much for a very rare, proven seed.”
Most growers are eager to help others get involved.
“Every pumpkin grower is pretty quick to give seeds away,” he added. “They would all be from the genetics of a 2,000 pound pumpkin. It may not have grown into 2000 pounds, but the genetics are there.”
For those interested in growing giant pumpkins, Beal recommends they get involved in the Indiana Pumpkin Growers Association.
“I’ve always grown them over a thousand for the last 4-5 years,” he said. “That’s what I’m pursuing is to grow bigger than that. You always try to improve your personal best. That’s what the club really strives — not to be the best, but to beat your personal best.”
“It’s a tremendous amount of work, that’s also fun,” Beal told us. “It’s about the bet way I can put it. I recommend anyone that has space — it does take some space, to try it.”
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