JOHNSTON — The largest pumpkin in New England rested like a deflated balloon in Steve Sperry’s Rhode Island backyard. A pale pastel orange with lumps and ridges all over, the giant gourd sat in the middle of a patch of tired plants, ready to be picked.
Sperry was getting ready for the season’s final weigh-off, where he and other local growers compete for the title of biggest pumpkin. Sperry had already won the top prize at other weigh offs at the Topsfield Fair (2,198 pounds) and the Ridgefield Festival (2,154 pounds).
He wasn’t sure how he’d do at the Southern New England Giant Pumpkin Growers contest. It was a particularly rainy growing season, and Sperry was bracing himself for the reality of rots, splits, and leaks that can disqualify a pumpkin during the harvesting process, where a tripod is used to hoist the massive gourd up from the ground.
“You lift these, and you never know what to expect,” Sperry said.
But for Sperry, 68,last weekend’s contest brought the unexpected.
His final pumpkin of the season won first place at the SNGPG competition on Sunday, weighing 2,465 pounds — a personal best for Sperry, coming in about 300 pounds heavier than was expected based on a series of measurements, or “taping,” as the experts call it.
“It was a good weekend,” Sperry told the Globe on Tuesday, following the competition. “Much better than expected.”
Growing these gargantuan gourds requires a certain amount of patience. From start to finish, it takes about six months and about 30 hours of work per week during peak parts of the season to pull it off.
Sperry started his crop indoors in April, and then pollinated the pumpkins outdoors in June. He grew a total of four this year on 70-foot by 70-foot plots in his roughly two-acre backyard. He spent every day outside caring for the pumpkins, burying vines, spraying water, and pruning, and sprayed fungicides and insecticides weekly to keep the plants healthy.
Three out of the four pumpkins Sperry grew won first prizes at weigh-in contests (the fourth placed fourth at the Durham Fair at 1,525 pounds), making it Sperry’s best season to date.
The key to his success was a combination of the hard work put in and having a winning seed.
This year, “the hottest seed” was the 2365 Wolf, Sperry said, which was auctioning for up to $800 online. But Sperry secured one for free because he knows the grower, Andy Wolf, who the seed is named after.
“[When] you’ve been doing this long enough, you know these people,” Sperry said, adding that there are only about 300 or 400 seeds to each pumpkin, and after they’re harvested, growers often share them with each other or auction them off. Sperry said he sends his seeds to anyone who requests one with a self-addressed envelope and prepaid postal.
Sperry, who grew up in Johnston, has been a hobbyist pumpkin grower for 23 years. He said he was drawn to it after meeting the late John Castellucci, “a mentor to all” and “the godfather of giant pumpkin growing in this area.”
A retired housekeeping supervisor, he’s taken a year off here and there to paint the house or take a vacation. But when it comes time for growing season, Sperry is committed to growing gourds in the backyard.
“My wife says she’s a pumpkin widow at times,” Sperry said, laughing.
At the SNGPG competition over the weekend, Sperry beat out three-time world record holder Ron Wallace and his 2,344-pound pumpkin; and Joe Jutras, a one-time world record holder and his 2,217-pound pumpkin.
Both Wallace and Jutras are also from Rhode Island, which is ripe with competitive pumpkin growers, Sperry said.
In terms of worldwide standings, Sperry’s 2,465-pound pumpkin is currently ranked fourth largest, although he noted that could change this weekend as more growers participate in weigh-ins across the world. The largest pumpkin in the world weighed in at 2,749 pounds by grower Travis Gienger of Anoka, Minn.
The worldwide pumpkin rankings are all posted on bigpumpkins.com, which is fed data from the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, or “the Wizard of Oz of giant pumpkins,” Sperry said, an organization that oversees the giant pumpkin growing hobbyist community.
While Sperry said he’s in the running to be this year’s GPC Grower of the Year, it’s not the competition that keeps him going — it’s the community itself.
“I’ve made some great friends, friends for life,” Sperry said. “And you know, I’m still doing it.”