Just like Jack’s magic beans grew and grew into a giant fairy-tale beanstalk, a few special pumpkin seeds sprouted and plumped up beyond the wildest dreams of Joshua Smith and the children at his small North Dakota preschool.
The seeds, the final two that Smith had received from a grower of giant pumpkins, yielded two spectacular specimens, weighing in at 460 and 500 pounds by the time Smith harvested them earlier this month.
“I think a lot were kind of speechless because they’ve never seen a pumpkin that big,” Smith said of his young students. “They were amazed.”
Smith, 36, was thrilled with the giant pumpkins too, though he had his doubts from the start. After all, he had tried — unsuccessfully — to grow big pumpkins from the batch of seeds several times.
“They didn’t germinate in the last couple of years, and I was down to my last two seeds,” said Smith.
But he gave it another try, this time with his students at In-Side-Out Early Learning, the school he founded last year on his property in Bismarck, North Dakota.
“Let’s just try it,” Smith thought. “If they grow, they grow. If they don’t, they don’t.”
Smith and the students got digging in May, as they learned about plants. They planted daffodil bulbs and tomato seeds, and the two pumpkin seeds as well, nestling them into the dirt in two paper cups. The pumpkin seeds blossomed, and the children helped transfer them to the garden during a summer program. In August, when school was out, they really started to grow.
By the time students returned in September, the pumpkins were quite large, overtaking their area of the garden with 38-foot-long vines that were an inch thick.
“They came back to school ecstatic that there are two pumpkins that weighed more than they do,” Smith said.
Smith knew he was onto something when he could no longer move the pumpkins.
“I couldn’t even budge them, so I knew they were big,” he said. “I was really excited.”
Smith taught his students about soil, sunlight and water; they studied the prickly vines growing in all directions and examined the pumpkins’ large leaves. They discussed rainbows when the pumpkin plants were being watered.
Along with the science instruction, the kids also got to climb on the orange giants and smell them and feel their smooth and rough parts.
“They were thinking that they were playing but yet they were remembering” the lessons as well, Smith said. “They had a lot of fun.”
The project seems a fitting one for the school.
Smith, who served in Iraq with the National Guard a decade ago, earned his early childhood and elementary education degree in the spring of 2013 and opened the school, which has a focus on outdoor learning, that fall. He teaches his children, ages 4, 6, and 8, who attend as home-schooled students, along with eight other youngsters.
The school’s hands-on approach to learning, Smith says, “is priceless, nowadays.”
“Not every program is able to get outside and be able to dig in the dirt and plant,” he said.
Parents said their children enjoyed helping the pumpkins grow so big they stood chest-high with the smallest students.
Kelli Nelson said her 4-year-old daughter, Andie, thought the pumpkins were “pretty cool.” “She loves anything outside or in the garden, so she really enjoyed that,” she said.
Melody Trieu’s 3-year-old son, Trey, talked about the pumpkins often, describing their color, shape and size. “The whole experience was really nice for the kids,” she said.
When the vines and leaves froze in early October, Smith harvested the pumpkins with the help of a front-end loader. They went on display at Papa’s Pumpkin Patch in Bismarck so more people could enjoy them, and Smith took his class to the patch to see the pumpkins last week.
“If you have something that you’re proud of, share it with others,” Smith taught the students.
“They felt proud of their accomplishment, because at 3, 4 and 5, they’re not really given projects like that. For a lot of the kids, they’re not given projects that last more than an hour,” Smith said, adding that his students learned patience and perseverance. “This was months.”
The students were wowed by the huge pumpkins they helped grow. “I don’t think the kids are going to forget this experience,” Smith said.
Just what do people, young and old, love so much about giant pumpkins?
“For some reason, when a person sees a big pumpkin, they smile,” Smith said. “Their mood changes, they smile, and it makes them happy, even if they did not grow it.”
Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter.