Backyard Giants grew out of an October 2005 article I wrote for my employer, The Wall Street Journal, that examined the extraordinary effort required to grow a championship giant pumpkin. But it really began in my tiny suburban backyard in Grand Prairie, Texas years before I even thought about writing a book.
We moved in to that Grand Prairie house in 1996 when it was brand new and the yard was nothing but dirt. In the years since I had planted every tree, every blade of grass, every bush and every flower myself. That's not necessarily a good thing. I crammed too much into too little space. Plants were packed into sun and shade in no particular order and with no particular aim except that it seemed like the right spot at the time. In the middle of the yard I left an invincible Bermuda-grass lawn for my young daughters to play on, with a place to one side reserved for their swings and playhouse my husband, Tony, designed and built for them.
Every year I found new plants to grow, and I searched for ways to expand my growing space. Some new plants found a spot in the empty place left by last year's failures. Others joined the colony of flower pots crowding the back porch and spilling over into the grass. When my small vegetable patch filled up with okra, bell pepper and eggplant, I nestled a tomato among the clumps of society garlic in my flowerbed, and let the cantaloupe vine make its way among the moss rose and marigolds. Watermelon vines sprawled across the grass beneath my childrens' swings.
I made stupid mistakes. I let my Carolina Jasmine vine grow so massive and heavy that it pulled over my cedar fence. It was a mess. But a beautiful mess, I thought. From January to December, there was always something blooming in my garden. You can do that in Texas.
So one year I discovered gourds. First luffa gourds, used to make those stiff sponges, and then birdhouse gourds. I planted them at the base of the red oak tree in my backyard, and the vines climbed the trunk and burst out of the canopy at the top. My oak tree bloomed with brilliant yellow and white flowers all summer. When the gourds began to grow, they hung down from the branches like Christmas ornaments.
Then one year I grew something new. I thought at first it was a watermelon hanging off the vine, elongated by gravity. But I soon realized it was not-watermelon, and not-birdhouse gourd. It was something in-between. I watched it grow bigger over the next two months, until it was about two feet long and very heavy. It was colored like a watermelon, with a long goose-neck and a fat bottom as big around as a football.
This strange combination of watermelon and birdhouse gourd was so interesting that I went to the Internet to research gourds and melons and cross-pollination. And that is how I stumbled across the giant pumpkin growers, who are specialists in cross-breeding. And I found the giant pumpkin growers even more interesting, so I resolved to write about them. I went to a pumpkin weigh-off in Rhode Island and I met father and son master pumpkin growers Ron and Dick Wallace and the article ran on the WSJ's front page and that story led to Backyard Giants.
But how can you write a book about people growing giant pumpkins without trying to grow one yourself? So as I prepared to spend a year following in the footsteps of Ron and Dick and other giant pumpkin growers around the country, I also began my own home pumpkin project. I discovered very quickly that giant pumpkins become inextricably entwined with your life, coloring everything you do and everything you think. It was crucial insight into the growers' obsession that I was trying to write about.
Here, then, are some excerpts from the diary I kept as my husband, daughters and I set about the somewhat insane task of growing a giant pumpkin in our tiny suburban backyard in Grand Prairie, Texas the summer of 2006.