Jim Zisson’s neighbors on Mound Road have grown accustomed to his fall tradition, but those passing through Naugus Head often stop in their tracks at the sight of the giant, orange pumpkin proudly displayed on his lawn.
For more than a decade now, Zisson, who is an avid gardener, has grown giant pumpkins to celebrate the Halloween season. He said he began growing the giant gourds for fun, and sees it as an extension of his gardening hobby, which extends to tomatoes, squash, and regular pumpkins.
“It’s kind of fun because people will be driving by, the regular neighbors are used to it, but people will be driving by and you just see the look on their face. They stop, roll down their window, and they say always the same thing, ‘Is that real?’” Zisson said in an interview. “Kids enjoy it, it’s great for Halloween … these you could make a pie with but they’re kind of watery and stringy … this will end up in the compost, but it’s really just a hobby kind of a fun thing to do.”
By day, Zisson is an engineer working at General Electric “in the helicopter business.” Zisson said engineering comes into play as he grows the giant pumpkins, with science playing a factor in making sure the pumpkin comes out just right.
“There’s a lot of science in it,” he said. “Everything from when you plant and what they like and when the first leaf comes, if you want the body to grow that way, you make sure that first leaf is pointing the other way. That’s really important to know with these things because when I grow it … I want it to come down the side yard not into the street”
The seed that will become the year’s giant pumpkin gets planted on May 1, Zisson said, explaining that it takes between 120 and 150 days for a giant pumpkin to grow.
“It starts with a seed … and then usually around July that female flower opens, which has a pumpkin about the size of a ping pong ball with a flower on the end, and this actually started on July 12,” he said referencing the pumpkin currently on display on his lawn. “And really within two months it has most of the size it just grows and grows and grows, loves to grow in July and August. And then they kind of slow down in September.”
The giant pumpkin has little practical use, Zisson admitted, and most years he takes the gourd down the street to the Transfer Station to be composted.
“I’m always going to say the day after Halloween, ‘I hope someone steals it,’” he quipped.
To grow a giant pumpkin, Zisson said, one needs the seed of another giant pumpkin. This year’s pumpkin was the 2020 Canadian champion, which was larger than Zisson’s, but had the orange, round shape he was after.
This year, Zisson was forced to recruit seven people to help him lug the pumpkin from the side of his house over to the front yard. The pumpkin was grown on a pallet and is unusually hefty for its size thanks to what Zisson described as a “funny summer,” which saw the state fall into severe drought conditions due to a lack of rain.
In a typical year, he said, it takes four people to move the pumpkin, but this year’s group of eight struggled with the heft of the gourd, taking four breaks between the two ends of the house. He estimated the pumpkin weighs between 500 and 1,000 pounds.
Zisson said he will grow things until he is no longer physically able to.
“I really like being outside … out of tow I rent a small piece of land on a farm … I just love being outside, I like growing and sharing this stuff,” he said. “I’ll ride around in my car with a box of tomatoes at all times … and just give them out and people really, really enjoy them.”
For Zisson, growing pumpkins is all about fun.
“It’s a fun thing to do and people come by [and] it kind of actually is a little thing for the neighborhood too. But, word spreads and I’ll just look out and there’ll be people here taking pictures with it, just kind of a neat thing,” he said. “And they don’t have to drive to Topsfield.”