'Big Earl' is a big draw at Cockeysville garden center

How many pies can you make with a 1,543-pound pumpkin?

Big Earl isn't as intimidating as his name might suggest.

Sure, he tips the scales at 1,543 pounds. But he's a bit pale and slumps over to one side.

The massive pumpkin is the star of the show this fall at Valley View Farms in Cockeysville, where the owners have been shipping in giant gourds for more than 25 years.

Earl arrived in a box truck, and employees used a forklift to hoist it onto a green-carpeted stage on Wednesday.

"Any time you have extreme anything, people are drawn to it," said Carrie Engel, Valley View's greenhouse manager. "It's one of those things you can't see anywhere else."

Big Earl began its journey to Baltimore County as a nameless pumpkin on a farm in the town of Clinton in upstate New York.

Hobbyist grower Steve Marley planted seeds from his best pumpkin last year — Old Bessie — and this pumpkin took off, growing 900 pounds in August alone.

"We called this one Little Bessie," said Marley. He said that in his opinion, "pumpkins are not boys. They are girls."

There aren't many secrets to growing giant pumpkins, said Marley, a landscaper who got into the big-pumpkin game four years ago. You need to plant seeds from a giant pumpkin, feed the plant seaweed or fish fertilizer, and give it room to grow.

Marley entered the pumpkin in the Central New York Great Pumpkin Fest in Oswego, N.Y., last weekend and walked away with the top prize for the largest pumpkin.

That's where Valley View stepped in, buying the pumpkin for an undisclosed price and christening it Big Earl.

Marley wasn't sure he was going to sell his giant pumpkin and thought about putting it on display at his father's apple orchard. But Valley View made "a good offer." He's still got two 900-pounders from his garden.

Later this season, Big Earl will be joined by other big pumpkins that Valley View is buying — but the stage has to be reinforced first, Engel said.

Heathe Jones, creative director of Cre8 Studios, a firm that runs the Oswego pumpkin festival, said some champion pumpkins like Big Earl are sold, others travel on a circuit of fall festivals. Often, festival organizers never know what happens to them.

The town's fall festival is a slice of life in the rural community — Jones said dozens of pumpkins vie for cash prizes and titles that include largest pumpkin, prettiest pumpkin and pumpkin grown farthest from Oswego.

"It's very touching. These guys work very hard," Jones said. "At the end, when the awards are given out, they're all clapping and hugging and high-fiving."

In Cockeysville, Valley View's staff is proud to have a pumpkin champ on display alongside more traditionally sized pumpkins that cover a parking lot. Years ago, the store drew local fame for having a 755-pound pumpkin that was a record-setter at the time, said general manager Tim McQuaid.

"Since then, these pumpkins have gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. It's incredible," he said.

McQuaid has seen pumpkins nearing 2,000 pounds — "a ton of orange fun."

Or a ton of pumpkin pie. Though Big Earl isn't destined to fill pie crusts, the large pumpkins actually are good for cooking because they are cross-bred with squashes, which bake well, McQuaid said.

Using a rule of thumb of one pound of pumpkin for one pie, Big Earl could theoretically make more than 1,500 pies.

Big Earl will not meet his end in the oven. He's destined for an electric saw.

At noon on Halloween, Valley View employees will cut into Big Earl with a flourish and pull out the seeds. Viable seeds will be counted for a counting contest, then returned to the grower.

In the meantime, visitors gawk at Big Earl and pose for pictures.

Four-year-old Allie Knupp, visiting Wednesday afternoon with her mother, Elton Knupp, and grandmother, Coritta Furst, threw her arms across Big Earl in an attempt to give the pumpkin a hug.

"I think it's a winner!" she declared.

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