Oh, my Gourd; Austin man finds passion in growing giant pumpkins

Published 9:12 am Friday, September 21, 2018

Charlie Brown’s great pumpkin has nothing on Tanner Conway’s pumpkins.

The assistant manager of Berg’s Nursery has a talent of growing giant gourds that weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Every year, the Austin man would continue to raise his pumpkins for competition at weigh-offs.

“I used to grow a bunch of them, but quickly learned that one plant equals a pretty good chunk of time,” Conway admitted. “I max it at about two or three. It chews up enough time, burying vines and pruning. I have one that estimates about 800 pounds and it’s still growing.”

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That’s just one of the smaller pumpkins that Conway has grown himself.

He aims to at least raise a pumpkin to weigh about 1,500, though he wants to eventually beat his own personal best and grow a pumpkin that weighs at least 2,000 pounds.

“I always try to bring my biggest one to Stillwater,” he said. “I used to go to weigh-offs in Stillwater and it always has that sentimental value.”

The fascination with giant pumpkins was something that stemmed from Conway’s childhood. He remembered zipping past Super Fresh with his mother and saw giant pumpkins on display that immediately caught his attention.

One of Tanner Conway’s pumpkins stands out in the green of the rest of the garden.

“I told my mom ‘we gotta stop!’ I thought it was so interesting,” Conway said. “I met the growers, and they took me under their wings and got me hooked and worked to establish a hobby out of this.”

To say that Conway was passionate about growing pumpkins would be an understatement. He likens the experience  “raising a kid” and spends hours every day out in his pumpkin patch to weed, fertilize, measure and to put in some hard work and effort into fostering the vegetable.

During the first three years, Conway couldn’t find the perfect solution to growing his pumpkins past a certain point. He had friends who grew gourds that were over 1,500 pounds, and he came pretty close.

“It boils down to putting effort and money into it,” he said. “A lot of it’s trial and error, and as growers, you’re still learning. There’s some new struggles and flusters you at times, but darn it, you deal with it and figure out what to do.”

Tanner Conway checks the stem of one of his giant pumpkins he grows for competition.

There’s also the danger of pumpkins cracking and then rotting depending on the size they reach, which Conway, anxiously checks each day.

“They can rot in a manner of days,” he said. “I cross my fingers that they didn’t crack, and I hope it still stays so that people can come and enjoy it.”

While his pumpkins aren’t at peak size yet, Conway hoped to sell them eventually after competition season, or have them displayed at Berg’s for children to see and get photographs with them.

“Get them excited for fall essentially,” he said. “That’s one of the big reasons why I do this. I like getting people inspired to go out and grow something. What I really love is to teach the youth about gardening and getting younger kids mentored. It’s a really fun hobby, and I think it builds character and patience and sets the bar of understanding the value of effort, and seeing what you get out of it at a young age.”

The great big pumpkin

Conway’s loved ones know of his obsession with growing pumpkins, including his family and longtime girlfriend Caitlyn Wheeler. Conway stated that Wheeler was well aware of his hobby, and would come out to his pumpkin patch to help with the maintenance of the pumpkin and measuring, and also attended the weigh-offs with Conway to support him.

“She calls me a ‘pumpkin nerd,’” he said. “But, she’s probably one of my biggest supporters. Our very first date, I asked her right away ‘do you want to see my pumpkins?’ She thought I was kidding, but when she saw me measuring them, she realized ‘oh my god, he’s a pumpkin nerd.’ She got used to it.”

In fact, he shared that Wheeler would go to his weigh-offs that are hours away from Austin, and would get up early in the morning to go with him to support him at contests.

“She’s honestly a trooper, and she’s encouraging when I’m growing pumpkins and something’s not going right,” he said. “She has faith in it.”

Tanner Conway reveals his prime giant pumpkin that he feels will do well in competitions.

Although Conway goes to competition with his pumpkins, he usually goes for the camaraderie from fellow giant pumpkin growers and to defeat his own personal records.

“Honestly, there’s so many good growers, and I’ve had my butt handed to me a few times,” he said. “It’s one of those things where you pull for each other. I feel that in a couple more years, maybe I’ll perfect my craft. I just gotta keep expanding my knowledge and keep going with trial and error with growing these.”

Whether Conway planned to continue growing giant pumpkins after he goes for a 2,000 pound pumpkin is up in the air, but he imagined raising his future children to grow things as well.

“I’m hoping to get my own kids into gardening and do a garden of their own giant pumpkins,” he said. “They would have their dad’s support, and I’d love to compete with my own kids someday, and I’m definitely doing this a long time. You get glued to it. These grow 30 pounds over night, and that’s crazy. I do like pumpkins and this time of year.”

Tanner Conway uses his fist to pound on the surface of a giant pumpkin he’s growing. This method is used to give him and idea of the pumpkin’s density.