Fair to say: Pumpkin spices up Swampscott

Retired pharmacist Thomas Keenan of Swampscott grew the largest pumpkin in Massachusetts this year, earning him and his more than one-ton gourd second place at the 2023 Topsfield Fair’s Giant Pumpkin contest.

Only a week before the Fair, Keenan walked through his backyard, pointing to a roughly 1,900-pound shining orange pumpkin at the center of a 20-square-foot plant spanning half of the yard. The massive pumpkin, weighing 2,074 pounds, is Keenan’s largest after 11 consecutive years of trying to beat the national pumpkin-growing record, set at 2,560 pounds.

Although the fair’s first-place prize went to Steven Sperry of Johnston, Rhode Island, Keenan said growing a one-ton pumpkin is no small feat.

“My personal record was 1,943 pounds, and this year was 2,074 pounds. So yeah, I broke the 2,000-pound barrier, which is sort of a big deal. If you can grow a one-ton pumpkin, that’s something good. That’s a milestone,” Keenan said.

In preparation for the Topsfield Fair, Keenan spent five months nurturing the gourd from a seed — first in his basement, then in a makeshift greenhouse he built in his backyard.

Keenan began growing pumpkins in 2012 from a seed he

purchased at the Topsfield Fair, which he used to grow his first 952-pound gourd. Since then, he has become a card-carrying member of the New England Giant Pumpkin Growers Association and returned to the fair each year with a fall fixture fruit of his own to enter into the giant pumpkin weigh-in contest.

“This used to be all grass,” Keenan said, pointing to the pumpkin plant. “We had a little garden over in this area, and one year, my son said, ‘Dad, let’s plant a pumpkin.’ So we planted a pumpkin using a seed that I got from one of these guys at the Topsfield Fair and took over the whole year. All the other stuff that I planted — tomatoes and all the standard stuff — it all had to be pulled out to make room for this giant pumpkin.”

The fair’s record for heaviest pumpkin was set by Jamie Graham of Tyngsborough, whose 2022 pumpkin topped the scale at 2,480 pounds — only 80 pounds lighter than the national record of 2,560 pounds. Keenan said he will not take a break from his pumpkin growing until he hits the state record.

“Just like a runner has a time that he would call his personal best, crazy pumpkin growers have the same personal best. The record in Massachusetts now is about 2,500 pounds — that’s the goal,” Keenan said.

In 2017, Keenan donated his 1,284-pound pumpkin to the Police Department. He said after this year’s fair, he plans to either donate his pumpkin to the town or give or sell it to an interested business.

When asked if he has a secret trick for successfully growing massive gourds each year, Keenan responded that it’s key to balance the plant’s water and nutrient intakes.

“The thing that a lot of pumpkin growers do is overwater and over-fertilize,” Keenan said. “Less is more. Too much water will destroy a plant. Leave it alone.”