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Swampscott man out of his gourd with giant pumpkin

From left, Tom Keenan of Swampscott, Keenan's cousin Paul Nash of Salem, and a crew from ML Landscaping comprised of Thomas Lopez of Lynn, Diego Perez of Lynn, and Felipe Lopez of Lynn, in the Bobcat, remove the giant pumpkin from Keenan's backyard so it can be transported to the Topfeild Fair for the annual competition. (Spenser R. Hasak)

SWAMPSCOTT — All Tom Keenan wanted in his backyard was a vegetable garden. Instead, he ended up with a giant pumpkin patch.

The Swampscott resident of nearly two decades has grown two giant pumpkins in his backyard for nearly seven consecutive years. This year, he grew his biggest pumpkin yet, estimated between 1,600 and 1,800 pounds. 

“What started off as growing peppers and tomatoes, like most people, has turned into this,” said Keenan. 

Keenan, 66, spent Thursday gearing up to get his pumpkin onto his tractor trailer so he could drive it to the Topsfield Fair, where it will be judged in the annual Giant Pumpkin Contest. Fear took over when he wasn’t sure if the contractors he hired were going to show up with the bobcat he needed to move the 100-day-old pumpkin from his backyard to his trailer. 

Shortly after 3 p.m., three heroes sporting M.L. Landscaping hoodies arrived, with a bobcat in tow. Keenan and a family member unchained the pumpkin from its chain hoist and makeshift tripod and removed the blankets meant to keep the gourd warm. 

The bobcat driver made his way into the backyard and attached the machine under the palette, hoisting the pumpkin up before slowly making his way backwards toward the front of the house, where the tractor waited. Keenan’s face nearly turned white when he heard the palette crack, realizing the pumpkin was too heavy for it.

Fifteen minutes, or what felt like an hour, later, the giant pumpkin had safely made its way into the trailer. The six people broke out into applause once the anxiety-driven mission was complete.

“Every year I say I’m never going to do this again because it’s so much work,” said Keenan. “But here I am.”

Why did the full-time Walgreens pharmacist start growing giant pumpkins? He said it all started when he was a kid and his parents brought him to Topsfield Fair to see the Giant Pumpkin Contest. He’s had an interest in them ever since. 

He didn’t start growing pumpkins until 2012, and he said it was only because he put in an auction bid for a giant pumpkin seed and won. Soon after, his backyard became a pumpkin patch, where two giant pumpkins have risen from the ground every year since.

His planting process starts after he puts the seed into the ground. Then, he said, he trains the growing pumpkin vines to go in a straight line to where the pumpkin will bloom. With the weeding, watering, and fertilizing, he said the hobby becomes a full-time job during the summer months, after he grows the seed at the beginning of April and plants it in the middle of May.

How does he make sure his pumpkin grows bigger each year?

“It has to do with the watering, feeding and how you manage it,” he said. “It’s also important how you manage where the vine grows as well as fighting off the plant diseases.”

How does he know when the pumpkin is done?

“It stops getting bigger,” Keenan said with a laugh. 

If you’re wondering how to grow a giant pumpkin in a perfect orange color, Keenan said it isn’t always a guarantee. But, planting a pumpkin with a seed that came from a perfectly orange one will give you a greater chance of getting closer to the shade. He said his Topsfield-bound pumpkin probably has 800 seeds in it, most of which he gives away after the gourd is returned to him.

The smaller of Keenan’s two pumpkins, weighing in at 1,550 pounds, recently took fifth place at the Deerfield Fair, he said. It’s sitting in his front driveway now, but he plans on donating it to the Swampscott Police Department, as he does every year. The pumpkin gets displayed out front and the department hosts pumpkin naming and weigh-in contests for town residents.

Keenan was asked when he’d outgrow growing giant pumpkins. 

“I don’t know,” he said. “All I know is that I have to get one to 2,000 pounds.”

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