Jodi Vollmer thinks big with her after-work hobby.
When she isn’t supporting Idaho National Laboratory’s Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program, Vollmer grows long gourds. The aim is to produce the longest fruit she can, and it led to a record-breaking year for her.
Her interest first piqued after meeting her husband Michael, who grew Atlantic giant pumpkins. He made growing extraordinary autumnal fruit look fun and smart, with a personal best coming in at 780 pounds. But the plants take up a lot of ground space, and “I wanted something of my own so that I could compete too,” she said. So, Vollmer decided to grow her own way: vertically.
Growing long gourds starts with seed genetics and good dirt. Because the plants thrive in a particular soil pH and temperature, Vollmer has her garden’s soil tested at a local laboratory to assess nutrient needs, and she uses ground warmers to allow her to plant outside in early April. Once the soil is ready, she focuses on seeds. In the spring, she soaks and files the edges of her seeds before planting. After germination, she pulls weak-looking plants and moves stronger plants to the garden, where they bloom and pollinate at night.
For some growers, this pollination is critical. Like any kind of elite breeding, some seeds come with full pedigrees and can cost up to $100 if they come from a champion gourd. Vollmer is a bit more relaxed with her approach, planting different varieties of seeds near each other.
The plants then begin the impressive part of the process. They grow up the 12-foot trellis in Vollmer’s back yard, and the fruit extends down from the top. This time is challenging, and it requires her to use her best judgment to determine which plants should be pruned or pulled to give stronger plants a better opportunity.
Once the plants produce fruit, the incredible growth is an indicator for success. “These gourds can grow 8 inches a day,” she said. “That’s a good measurement of which ones to prune. If they aren’t growing quickly, you know it’s not going to be show worthy.”
Vollmer’s focus on learning and managing a complex process mirrors her professional life. Her career progression at INL has required organization and adaptability. She started as a computer operator almost 30 years ago and has moved throughout the organization to her position today, where she supports organizing budgets, milestones and webpages for the Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program. “One of the best things about working at INL is if you want to learn more about something, the opportunities are endless,” she said.
Once the growing season ends, it’s time to pick a winner. While the gourds are an impressive length, their diameter (only around four inches) can present challenges. While Vollmer takes her product to the local state fair for a general assessment, there are currently no competitions in Idaho specific to long gourds. This means she needs to pick a sturdy fruit that can handle the drive to Utah without breaking.
In 2021, she wanted to beat her personal best length from 2020 of 98 inches. While the summer’s hot and dry weather was problematic in many ways, it was good for Vollmer’s gourds. “The hot weather this year was really beneficial, and the more sun, the better,” she said.
She was right. In September, she accomplished her goal, taking a gourd of 114 inches to the Utah Pumpkin Growers Weigh Off. Her gourd took first place in Utah and set the Idaho state record. She also submitted her gourd to the Eastern Idaho State Fair, where she won two blue ribbons.
Vollmer’s hobby has taken her to unexpected places: from the soil laboratory to out-of-state competitions, and even to the champions’ circle.