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He's once again pumpkin king

Napa grower becomes four-time champion at Elk Grove festival

Winner with giant pumpkin
Leonardo Urena of Napa shows off his latest Elk Grove champion pumpkin. (Photo
courtesy Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin Festival)

He’s California’s pumpkin king, and has the gourd to prove it.

For the fourth time, Leonardo Urena of Napa won first place at the Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off. His gargantuan gourd weighed in at 1,623 pounds during Saturday’s contest and earned him $7,000.

Urena, who has been competing in Elk Grove’s international giant pumpkin contest for more than 20 years, also earned the festival’s championship in 2005, 2011 and 2019.

By comparison, his 2021 giant was a middleweight. Urena’s 2019 winner weighed about 300 pounds more. But Urena’s new champion was more than 400 pounds heftier than his 2005 winner.

Urena now is  getting another giant ready for Half Moon Bay’s World Championship Weigh-off, set for Monday. This year’s prize has been raised to $9 per pound (at that price, his Elk Grove winner would have won more than $14,000). In addition, Half Moon Bay is offering a $30,000 grand prize for breaking the pumpkin world record.

Italian pumpkin winner
Stefano Cutrupi of Italy set a world record with a pumpkin
weighing 2,703 pounds at the Pisa pumpkin festival.
(Photo courtesy of LoZuccone)

But Urena and other growers will have to really up their pumpkin game to break that weigh-off mark. Last month, Stefano Cutrupi of Italy set a world record with a pumpkin weighing 2,703 pounds at the Pisa pumpkin festival.

Urena has had plenty of experience breaking records and also producing multiple giants in one season.

In 2019, Urena set a California record when he won Half Moon Bay’s World Championship weigh-in with a 2,175-pound pumpkin. Besides the state record, Urena also won the contest’s grand prize of $15,225 – $7 a pound – plus a $1,000 bonus for biggest California-grown pumpkin.

“The Half Moon Bay competition is like the Kentucky Derby,” Urena told reporters after that big win. “They call it the Derby of the Giant Pumpkins.”

That same month, Urena won his own Triple Crown of Giant Pumpkins – all with different home-grown entries. Before his world championship, Urena took home top honors (and $8,000) at the 2019 Elk Grove Giant Pumpkin Contest – 1,938 pounds. He also won the National Heirloom Expo’s giant pumpkin contest in Santa Rosa with a 1,542-pound squash.

In 2011, he scored a similar double with two enormous pumpkins. He won Elk Grove’s contest with a 1,684-pound pumpkin, then a new California record. Ten days later, he broke that state record while winning the world championships at Half Moon Bay with a 1,704-pounder.

His back-to-back California records earned Urena the title “2011 Farmer of the Year” from the Giant Pumpkin Commonwealth and a trip to New York City to display his then-record pumpkin at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.

Urena’s ability to grow enormous squash had earned him an international reputation. He has been featured in dozens of newspaper articles, including the Wall Street Journal.

His winning pumpkins tend to keep getting bigger. His 2005 Elk Grove winner weighed “only” 1,200 pounds. Since then, giant pumpkins have exploded in size – thanks in part to Urena’s own plant breeding.

In 2005, he crossed two giant pumpkins (each over 1,400 pounds) and came up with a 991-pound offspring. Puny by comparison to its parent plants, “991 Urena” (named for its weight and breeder) was unusually dense, making it heavier than its girth would usually indicate.

That made “991 Urena” champion breeding stock. Like a top stallion, “991 Urena” is now found in the breeding lines of many competitive pumpkins – including Urena’s new winner.

Next stop: Half Moon Bay.

This will be the 48th annual world championship pumpkin weigh-off. Although the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival has been canceled due to pandemic precautions, the weigh-off will go on as scheduled, starting at 7 a.m. Monday.

Pumpkin fans can watch online via Facebook Live. Details and links: .


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Garden Checklist for week of June 23

Get to work in the mornings while it’s still cool.

* Irrigate early in the day; your plants will appreciate it.

* Generally, tomatoes need deep watering two to three times a week, but don't let them dry out completely. That can encourage blossom-end rot.

* Let the grass grow longer. Set the mower blades high to reduce stress on your lawn during summer heat. To cut down on evaporation, water your lawn deeply during the early hours of the morning, between 2 and 8 a.m.

* Tie up vines and stake tall plants such as gladiolus and lilies. That gives their heavy flowers some support.

* Dig and divide crowded bulbs after the tops have died down.

* Feed summer flowers with a slow-release fertilizer.

* Mulch, mulch, mulch! This “blanket” keeps moisture in the soil longer and helps your plants cope during hot weather.

* Avoid pot “hot feet.” Place a 1-inch-thick board under container plants sitting on pavement. This little cushion helps insulate them from radiated heat.

* Thin grapes on the vine for bigger, better clusters later this summer.

* Cut back fruit-bearing canes on berries.

* Feed camellias, azaleas and other acid-loving plants. Mulch to conserve moisture and reduce heat stress.

* Cut back Shasta daisies after flowering to encourage a second bloom in the fall.

* Trim off dead flowers from rose bushes to keep them blooming through the summer. Roses also benefit from deep watering and feeding now. A top dressing of aged compost will keep them happy. It feeds as well as keeps roots moist.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushier plants with many more flowers in September.

* From seed, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, melons, squash and sunflowers.

* Plant basil to go with your tomatoes. 

* Transplant summer annuals such as petunias, marigolds and zinnias.

* It’s also a good time to transplant perennial flowers including astilbe, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis, dahlias, rudbeckia, salvia and verbena.

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