Highland dentist Dr. Anthony Pascale grows monster pumpkins for fun

Dr. Anthony Pascale poses proudly with a Cooperstown Pumpkin Weighoff t-shirt and a large Dill’s Atlantic Giant leftover from this year’s harvest. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Dr. Anthony Pascale is not only one of the great dentists in the area — his office being located off Route 9W in Highland, just across from Hannaford — but his passion also extends from gums and teeth to the intricate science of growing 800-pound pumpkins.

Growing up in Milton, Pascale has always enjoyed growing fruits and vegetables. He and his brother-in-law own a 12-acre parcel of land where they grow and sell all kinds of produce for their own use, but also to local restaurants and markets. “I’m a wannabe farmer,” says the always-humble Pascale. “A few of the real farmers in Milton have given me their blessing, but I’m just an amateur who likes to grow things.”

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To this end, Pascale was inspired six years ago when he went with his wife Sandy and his father-in-law to Cooperstown, where the Chamber of Commerce hosts an annual Pumpkin Festival during the last weekend of September. “They have a Giant Pumpkin Contest, where they showcased at least 70 pumpkins at the Doubleday Park baseball stadium. Some of these weighed up to 1,400 pounds!”

The next day, several of the giant gourds are hollowed out and people race them along Otsego Lake. “It’s a real country festival,” adds his wife Sandy, who works in the office with him. “They have everything to do with pumpkins: Restaurants have pumpkin soup, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin pancakes…and there are pumpkin hats for the kids. It’s very fun.”

When Pascale watched the weighing of the giant pumpkins and listened to the fascinating subculture talk of the gourd-growers, he decided that he would like to try to grow something “that big.” Easier said than done: He started out by writing to the contest winner that year and asking if he could purchase some seeds or be given some seeds from the winning gourd. “That’s what you’re supposed to do,” he explains, “send a self-addressed envelope to a pumpkin-grower you admire and ask if they might give you or sell you a seed.”

He heard nothing back from the winner, but he did receive two seeds from the runner-up to whom he had also mailed a letter. He then began searching various pumpkin-growing websites and picked the brain of local expert Tom Privitera (www.extremepumpkinstore.com), who besides having a cache of knowledge on not only pumpkin-growing, but also fertilizing schedules and various products that assist with the delicate science of growing squash so big that they resemble boulders, is also the IT for Adams Fairacre Farms.

Pascale’s first pumpkin weighed in at 380 pounds. “I was excited,” he said, “until I got up to Cooperstown and realized that it wasn’t so big.” He and his wife and their grandkids had a fine time up at the Festival, and Dr. Pascale went right back to work, plotting and planning and grooming and fertilizing a new batch of pumpkins for next year’s competition.

“It’s like having a pet,” he says. “The real big pumpkin-growers can spend three hours a day or more tending to their pumpkin. I spend about an hour to an hour-and-a-half a day.” He grows his giant pumpkins right next to his office, so that he can tend to them and his patients can enjoy them as their teeth are being worked on.

It starts in modest fashion on April 18, when Dr. Pascale plants usually four seeds into peat pots in the greenhouse that he has in his office. He was fortunate when he wrote to the world’s largest pumpkin-grower, Chris Stevens of Wisconsin. “I sent him a self-addressed envelope and a nice letter asking if he might give me one of the seeds from his ‘world’s largest pumpkin.’” Pascale waited, and kind of gave up hope that he’d receive such a jewel of a seed; but on St. Patrick’s Day last year he received his envelope back in the mail with a “nice note from Stevens and two seeds.”

So it was a shock to him when one of his patients brought in an article in The New York Times, all about the quest to grow the biggest pumpkins around the country. “Chris Stevens was featured in the article, and had sold one of his seeds for $1,600: the largest amount ever paid for a pumpkinseed! I might have paid $75, but there is no way my wife would have let me pay $1,600. I felt very lucky.”

Once the seeds are planted in the greenhouse, Pascale says, “We get them in the ground by May 2, which is my wife’s birthday. But we have to cover them, and sometimes put a heat lamp on them to keep them warm, because it can still be cold at that time of year.”

Once the fruit appears on the vine, around July 1, Pascale has to do a lot of work, tricking the bees by taking out the female portion of the plant so that it doesn’t get pollinated with a non-giant-pumpkin strain. Then he has to fence in the property so that the deer, chipmunks and other creatures don’t feed on the pumpkin patch; weed the garden daily, as the weeds spread diseases to the pumpkins; raise the vine and the stem up and get rid of any runners that have dug into the ground, so as the pumpkin grows, it doesn’t pull its stem off.

There is a fertilizing schedule, a watering schedule (they take approximately 100 gallons of water a week); and then he has to spray them with copper sulfite, a certified organic product to protect them from disease. All of this has to be done early in the morning on a sunny day, so that the leaves have ample time to dry out and not encourage mildew and disease.

“Then I have four Hav-a-Hart traps, where I take our visiting woodchucks who get trapped to Poughkeepsie and let them go,” he says. He noted that a friend of his who had a large vegetable garden would “trap them and take them three miles away, and within a day or two he’d have more. So finally his wife spray-painted one of the woodchucks when it was in the cage, and sure enough, two days later it was back. So you really have to travel some distance if you don’t want them to come back and feed on your garden!”

While all of this is going on, Pascale has a busy practice, he’s growing all sorts of other fruits and vegetables on his Milton property and then he grows regular-sized pumpkins, which he gives to all of his young patients. “Pumpkins are happy vegetables,” he says. “They make people smile. They make kids smile. It’s not like growing broccoli! And our clients love watching the big pumpkins grow. I take them out to the field; people stop by the side of the road and take pictures. It’s just a fun thing to do, and people enjoy it.”

No one enjoys it as much as his grandsons, who accompany him and his wife and their oldest son to Cooperstown every year. This year, his pumpkin weighed in at 800 pounds. “I thought it was big, but the winner’s was over 1,400 pounds!” Still, he and his family enjoyed their 800-pound pumpkin, the travel, the excitement of the fair and being amongst the best of the Lord of the Gourds (also a PBS documentary).

The doctor enjoys being a dentist in Newington CT and has plans to work with Smile951.com, and when it comes to dentistry it’s the same answer that he gave about growing pumpkins: “I like to make people smile and have them enjoy their smiles, and I like to help people. That’s why I’m here today [on the Sunday afternoon after Thanksgiving]: because I had two patients who were in a lot of pain and needed some emergency care. If I can make them feel more comfortable, I’m grateful and happy to do it.” ++

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