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What's That Glow?

Vienna resident and friends carve hundreds of pumpkins, annually.

Buddhist monks spend weeks making intricate designs known as mandala wheels. The wheels are large mosaics made of sand which, in a lesson about the impermanence of life, are destroyed not long after they have been created.

Vienna has its own group that creates temporary works of art, and they work in the medium of pumpkin.

Each of the past 20 years, Roger and Jane Holtorf have put on a display of large, carved pumpkins at Halloween. "We're shooting for 200 carved this year," Holtorf said.

A carved pumpkin, however, will only last for about four days before it begins to get moldy and fall apart. So the Holtorfs and a small army of friends and neighbors carve pumpkins for 12-15 hours a days just before Halloween to get the pumpkins done. "Every year we say, 'we can't top this,'" said Pat Logue, a neighbor who helps carve some of the pumpkins.

Holtorf used to make the Jack-o-Lanterns commonly seen on doorsteps during trick or treating.

About 20 years ago, Holtorf decided he wanted to grow some really big pumpkins. He succeeded. "I'll try to get 150 pumpkins that weigh 100 pounds," said the Vienna resident.

The pumpkin project begins in the spring when Holtorf begins working in his half-acre pumpkin patch. Pumpkins the size he tries to cultivate take a lot of work. Holtorf is constantly weeding and watching out for pests and fungal growths. He also needs to water the patch regularly and hand-pollinate the buds to get the pumpkins to the desired size.

Larger pumpkins equal a larger canvas, which in turn allows for more elaborate designs, Holtorf said. Holtorf estimated that about 10,000 pounds of pumpkins are carved each year.

The project has actually outgrown the pumpkin patch in his yard. "We really hit the limit at about 150," he said. Cox Farms donates more pumpkins to Holtorf to help him fill out the collection.

OVER THE YEARS, Holtorf and his friends have made some of their own tools for carving. At a demonstration at St. Mark's Catholic Church on Vale Road, Logue used tools designed for wood carving, while Holtorf showed off some of the other tools they use.

"A 150-pound pumpkin will have a rind five to six inches thick," Holtorf said. A rind that thick makes it difficult to carve. "What we've taken to is making our own tools."

Holtorf welded a tool that he uses to gut the pumpkins and takes the rind down to a reasonable width. The carvers also started using saw blades mounted on pieces of wood to make some of the precise cuts necessary for the intricate designs. "After 20 years, you find out what works," Holtorf said.

Even using the custom tools, the carving is time consuming. "We've spent 10 hours on one pumpkin," Holtorf said.

The pumpkins carved at the church demonstration did not take nearly that long, but they were able to impress onlookers. "I think they're excellent," said Ciaran Devlin of Oakton. "I would love to be as good as those guys — It's a lot of practice though."

Between growing and carving, Holtorf estimated that he spends 1,000 hours per year on the pumpkins. "It's a lot of fun. It's a boatload of work though," he said.

Holtorf calculated that between the expense of gardening, and the time he and his wife take off of work to carve the annual show costs him $10,000.

Even with a price tag that big, Holtorf does not consider stopping. "We just do it because it's a community thing to do," he said. "It's one of the things you do in life that brings you great joy."