Leona Rocha Wilson and the Giant pumpkins

Leona Rocha Wilson had no idea what she was in for when she planted a handful of pumpkin seeds at her Lona Ridge farm in Wailuku Heights.

“I tell you, it’s so fun growing them because they just grow overnight,” she said. “It really is the most amazing thing to watch.”

About four months ago, the University of Hawaii Maui College’s Horticulture Department offered an assortment of free seeds, including pumpkin, tomato, sunflower, radish and bean. Participants were asked to plant the seeds, to document their progress and to possibly submit them in a contest – including the Giant Pumpkin Contest – at the Maui Fair, which begins Thursday.

Without knowing much about pumpkins, Wilson grabbed eight or nine of the Atlantic Giant pumpkin seeds and proceeded to plant them on her 6-acre property.

“Needless to say, I have the space but the advice I was given was just be sure to plant the pumpkins close to the driveway,” she said.

The mammoth squash variety holds the Guinness world record for heaviest fruit at 1,810 pounds, and last year, a Rhode Island man claimed to have produced the first 1-ton pumpkin at 2,009 pounds.

Although Wilson’s pumpkins are nowhere near the size of those behemoths, she does have difficulty trying to nudge her more than 100-pound ones.

“These pumpkins are at a substantial size . . . but I didn’t do it for that reason,” she said. “I just did it because it was something new and something fun to do.

“I’m 76 years old, and I’m a strong believer in doing things I’ve never done before.”

A graduate of Baldwin High School Class of 1955, Wilson was born and raised on Maui but lived in New York for 50 years where she attended the Fashion Institute of Technology. Wilson would go on to start her own company manufacturing sewing supplies and later became a spokesperson for companies such as Vogue.

Wilson credited her move to the Mainland and her career to her time in the Women’s Army Corps and the GI Bill that paid for her education.

“My mother always said, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ And that’s what I did with the pumpkins.”

Wilson moved back to the island with her husband in 2006 and later built her current Wailuku Heights home on a lot with more than 300 trees, including numerous native Hawaiian plants such as the koai’a tree.

In a golf cart Sunday morning, Wilson drove down her steep driveway to greet her five, bright orange pumpkins. It’s part of a routine she has been following nearly every morning since planting the seeds in June – taking photos, fending off fruit flies, measuring the pumpkins and documenting their progress in a journal.

“One of the things I learned was I planted three or four seeds in one hole, and after a while I thought I messed up and maybe I should have planted them apart,” she said. “But the most incredible thing is that even pumpkins want to survive, and every seed went in different directions: one went uphill, the other to the side and another downhill. It was really eye-opening for me.

“In a short time they grew and I thought, ‘Whoa, I can’t even move it.’ ”

Mae Nakahata, co-chairperson of the horticulture exhibit at the fair, said Wilson’s pumpkins, which are now about 50 inches in girth and about 30 inches tall, will be part of a contest at the fair that also will include “everything you need to know about pumpkins.”

“People will have to guess the weight of the five pumpkins and the closest one gets a prize,” said Nakahata, director of agricultural research and crop control for Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. “I’m still trying to figure out the prize, but it’s going to be a fun event.”

She doesn’t know how many pumpkins will be in the contest, but she hopes that those who took the seeds will bring their fruit to the fair.

The fair also will give an award to the best journal kept by participants who planted the various fruits and vegetables.

“We told people they don’t need to enter anything into the fair but to record a journal and their story,” Nakahata said. “People take for granted what it takes to grow foods, and there are a lot of failures farmers have to deal with. That’s why the Maui County Farm Bureau donated these seeds, to get people to understand that what you see at the market – there was a lot of care that it took to grow that.”

Wilson, whose husband died in 2010, has devoted much of her time to farming and said she has “enormous respect for farmers.”

“You’re fighting so many things including the cost to do business,” she said. “For me, this is fun and games. If I see a rotten pumpkin I’m mad, but for farmers they see lost profit.”

After the fair, Wilson said she will donate the pumpkins to St. Theresa Church’s Hale Kau Kau program, which provides daily meals for the hungry in South Maui.

“I think I have a little more knowledge about fashion than farming, but the pleasure I got from planting these pumpkins is priceless,” she said. “I would do this again next year, I really would.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at