Within minutes of seeing my first true giant - a gruesomely deformed, 1,300-pound pinkish-blue monstrosity squatting in the dirt in Rhode Island grower Steve Sperry's backyard, I decided I would have to try growing one myself. And now the time has come to begin.
I have no idea how I will manage to grow a giant pumpkin in Texas. I've heard pumpkin growers talk endlessly about their plants as if they were describing a high-strung mother-in-law. Everything about the plants seems demanding and temperamental. Their tender skin, fragile stems and flapping huge leaves are vulnerable to wind and frost and sunburn, and the plant as a whole seems permanently on the verge of succumbing to a series of horrifying diseases. Such frail creatures need gentle weather to thrive. In the northern latitudes of Northern California, Pennsylvania, New England and Nova Scotia, chilly springs give way to mild summers that slide smoothly into cool autumns. Paradise for pumpkins.
Not Dallas. A Dallas summer day regularly tops 100 degrees in July and August. I am a garden Darwinist. I know Texas can be a harsh environment, and I don't want anything that has to be too protected, too heavily watered or too pampered to thrive. Like pumpkins.
Where on earth can I grow a pumpkin plant in my little yard? The competitive growers who are schooling me have huge gardens, with enough space to give multiple plants 600 to 1,000 square feet to roam. At best, I might be able to squeeze 300 feet of space by sacrificing my usual vegetable patch and expanding the garden into the lawn. Even then, the pumpkin vine will eventually have to run out into the grass. But, I tell myself, I am not trying to set a world record. I am only trying to beat my personal best: a 3-pound pumpkin I grew several years ago from a jack-o-lantern seed that sprang up in my yard unasked.
Darwin would not approve. If I am to grow a giant pumpkin - and my real, more ambitious goal is to get up over 100 pounds - I am going to have to find a way to make a terribly temperamental plant thrive and reproduce in a most unsuitable place. This is going to take a lot of time and work. I have recruited help. My husband, Tony, is willing. My daughters, Christina, 10, and Amy, 9, are dubious, but excited to try. At least until the work part starts.
But I can't stop worrying about where to put the pumpkin plant. The vegetable garden will undoubtedly have the best soil. But will it get enough sun? I have a nice sunny spot in the middle of the yard, next to my daughters' play house, but it's covered in Bermuda grass.Tthe pumpkin would have to make do in black clay Texas soil. I can't make up my mind, so I've decided to try growing two plants - one in each place. Let the best spot win.
A couple weeks ago, Tony dug up dirt samples from our backyard vegetable garden and sent them to a soil lab at the University of Massachusetts for analysis. Ron Wallace recommended the lab to me. We hoped to find out how good or bad our soil was for growing pumpkins, and how we might make it better. But the test results only added to my confusion. It was a jumble of mineral names and abbreviations and percentages. The soil lab guy, Steve Bodine, had jotted a note at the bottom of the page: "Our testing methods are not ideally suited to the soils of Texas."
Huh? Dirt is dirt, isn't it? I envision this man receiving my samples and wondering why the heck a Texas woman is sending her dirt to Massachusetts. But he's nice about it. "If you wish to call and discuss the results, we'll be glad to clarify any questions you may have," he wrote.
That sounds ominous. I emailed the test results to Ron asking for guidance. His reply was politely incredulous. "Wow! Interesting soil report. I have never seen a cec of 65 or calcium of 13,791 ppm." He's encouraging, though. "It may take us a season or two to get your soil correct, but I think with making some adjustments, you can still grow a nice pumpkin!" he wrote. I can tell he's trying to keep my spirits up.
I called Steve Bodine at the Massachusetts lab to find out why they couldn't test my Texas soil properly. Mr. Bodine explains that the big difference between typical Massachusetts soils and Texas soils is the acidity and clay content. He explains to me that his tests are designed to extract elements from more acid soil, so it's not going to measure my Texas clay accurately.
Interesting. But baffling. At this point is seems to me the best way to grow giant pumpkins in Texas is to import dirt from Massachusetts. But I'm used to making do. The Texas season is beginning. I've got my game face on. It's time to start the seeds.
Already, the weather isn't cooperating. It's been in the 90's for a couple weeks, but now a cool front has brought heavy rain storms and lower temperatures. Today is in the 50s, and the next two nights are expected to be down into the 30s.
Torrential rains were flooding Dallas-Fort Worth this morning as we set out for Home Depot to buy some blood meal - one of the ingredients Mr. Bodine had suggested we use to improve our soil. Blood meal is basically the dried blood of slaughtered livestock, but the way it stunk up the car, you'd have thought we were bringing home the rotting carcass itself. On the way back, we stopped at the Pet-o-Rama store looking for a pet turtle for my daughter, Amy, to replace the Leopard frog she'd lost after raising it from a tadpole.
We'd thought for a while that we had a tadpole stuck in permanent puberty, but after several months his frog hormones kicked in and presto, in the space of a few weeks Fidgety the Tadpole became Fidgety the Frog. Then one morning shortly after his transformation he disappeared. It was a mystery until Amy was cleaning out his cage this morning and found a pair of desiccated frog legs lying at the bottom of the cage. Fidgety's other half was stuck up inside the hole in the bottom of a ceramic turtle. Fidgety had not escaped. Fidgety had not become a cat snack. He'd just crawled up into the turtle to hide. And while we searched and despaired and let all the water in his aquarium pond habitat evaporate, he had slowly starved and dried-up to death.
Tony and I were both guilt-stricken that we had not discovered Fidgety's trick in time to save him, and that poor Amy had been the one to find his pitiful little mummified body, so we caved in to her tearful pleas for a new pet. Something a little sturdier this time, we decided. A turtle. It was a weak moment. So as the National Weather Service flashed Flood Warnings for our section of the metropolis, we headed out into the downpour in search of stinking blood meal and a pet store turtle. Somehow, it all seemed like Ron and Dick Wallace's fault.
When we got home, it was time to start the seeds. I took the pumpkin seeds carefully out of the tiny manila envelopes given to me by the growers. I viewed them with reverence. I had decided to start three, and they all had their own distinctive look. The LaRue was large and flat and white. The Emmons was short and plump, a burnished tan. The Rondeau had a dull golden finish with some worrisome black spots that looked a bit like old mold.
I filed the seeds' edges with an emery board, as I'd been told, to let the moisture penetrate faster. Then I submerged the seeds in a glass of water to give them a good soaking for a couple hours. I found that even following the simplest instructions, I still had a trillion questions. I was following Joe Jutras's advice to start the seeds in a plastic baggie with a damp paper towel inside. But …. How wet is damp? When I held my folded paper towel under the dribbling kitchen faucet, I think I came closer to wetting it. How could I un-wet it? Wring it out? Would that make it too dry? Does the pumpkin seed sit right on top of the paper towel, or should I wrap it up?
After I got my seeds settled into their plastic baggies, each marked with their seed name, I tucked them inside a Styrofoam cooler with a heating pad set on low. I worried the heat would be too intense, so I set a rectangular cake pan over the heating pad, then put the seeded baggies on top of that. It made a nice, warm platform.
Finally, I stashed the cooler in the laundry room next to the washer and dryer. I'm hoping to see some evidence of something happening by tomorrow morning.
Yesterday morning when I checked at 6 a.m., the seeds all looked exactly the same. The bags were slightly warm, filled with beads of condensation clinging to the plastic. Too wet? Maybe. But. I worried that disturbing them at this point would be worse. I rushed home after work and went straight to the laundry room to check on the seeds. Eureka! The LaRue and Emmons had cracked open slightly at the tip point. On the Rondeau seed, I could glimpse the slightest hint of a dull white point hidden away inside the shell. I prepared my small peat pots with dirt and set them inside the cooler to warm up.
I woke up this morning and went straight to check on the seeds. Double Eureka! All had cracked open now and the Rondeau and Emmons had tiny white shoots peeking out from the crack. The laggaredly LaRue seed also had cracked open finally. No more time to waste. Into the dirt they went. I used a knife to open a slot inside the damp dirt of the 3-inch peat pot, and eased the seeds inside, point first. I gently patted the dirt back over to cover them, and set them inside the cooler again to keep warm.
We got the promised cold front after our flooding rains. Temperatures are supposed to dip into the 30s tonight. A possible freeze.
The seedlings are off to a great start. They are about 4-6 inches tall, with stout stems and thick, leathery seedling leaves that have grown now to the size of tennis balls. Already, these plants are showing signs of their gigantic potential. Yesterday, I buried the small peat pots inside a larger half-gallon ice cream container to give them more room to grow. This is where they will stay until it is time to put them in the ground. Another week, I reckon.
Today we worked on our dirt. I found our compost pile full of dozens of sprouted pumpkin seedlings from last fall's jack o lanterns. The little plants were growing like mad, elbowing each other for room. This is a good sign, I think. The soil is obviously warm enough for planting. And the pumpkins are getting enough light to grow in this shaded corner of the yard where I keep the pile under a Shumard Oak. I have one extra seedling, so I decide to plant it in the compost pile. What the heck.
I call my daughter Amy over. Like most kids, she likes to destroy things. I figure she'll get a kick out of hoeing out the pumpkin seedlings. But nope. "MOM!" she yells, outraged at what I am asking her to do. "You can't kill the pumpkins! Why don't we just grow these? They were here first!"
I explain that the jack o lanterns would be sucking up all the nutrients and water that our giant pumpkin needs to grow. She gets it, but still wants to save the seedlings. She recruits Christina to help and for the next 15 minutes, the two girls painstakingly dig up the seedlings and transplant them into the flower garden on the other side of the yard, which Amy now calls her pumpkin hospital. The seedlings will die, of course. But I like the way she's thinking.
As I turned the soil in the designated planting spots, Tony was out shopping for bags of compost and manure and anything else that looked like it might help improve our dirt. The morning had started out at 38 degrees, but by 10 a.m. it was already in the 60s, on the way to 75 for the day. The sky was clear and blue, and the sun and warmth put me in a fever of hurry. Tony returned with lots of 40-pound bags of stuff, and we begin mixing them into the three mounds we'd designated for our three pumpkins: one in the compost pile, one in the sunny middle of the yard, and one in our vegetable patch. This last is where we are concentrating most of our hopes - the others are just back-ups and experiments to see if we can grow plants in different soil and light conditions. I'm thinking that the pumpkin planted in the middle of the yard will serve as the male pollinator - so if it dies young, that will be okay as long as it stays alive long enough to give me some good male flowers.
Tony is excited that he has found some liquid seaweed and liquid fish at Home Depot. He wasn't that thrilled to be tackling this pumpkin patch with me - he's not fond of gardening - but he does seem excited about the liquid organic fertilizer I've commissioned him to brew. We are following a recipe I found on the internet. Kind of. With limited time, we have to improvise. Earlier this week Tony had taken a 3-gallon plastic bucket and filled it with water, plus two handfuls of compost, some manure, and some packaged seaweed that he bought from an organic grocery in Fort Worth. Last night he added some fruit peels after making a fruit salad for dinner.
The bucket was on the concrete porch outside our back door. When he lifted the lid after a few days, a wave of the most vicious smell flowed through the door into the kitchen. Like sewage bouillon. My daughters were repelled, but also fascinated - Amy made several trips out to the porch to lift the lid and take another whiff so that she could have the fun of reeling about gagging and retching. Christina, sensibly, stayed far away.
Now Tony has found something new to add to the putrid stew. This will be our fertilizer concentrate. We will dilute it and use it to water the pumpkin plants - hopefully delivering valuable nutrients in addition to the noxious fumes. Tony holds his breath, opens the bucket lid and upends the plastic bottle of liquid seaweed, which flows in a dark molasses-colored stream into the bucket. Not so bad, really. Then he opens the liquid fish and it exceeds all expectations. The liquid this time is a heavy brownish-green sludge. It LOOKS as if it will stink to high-heaven and delivers on the promise. Tony chortles in glee as he takes a stick and stirs his thick soup. No matter the recipe, cooking is his bliss.
We're not finished. We have to add the bags of bone and blood meal to our dirt and mix it in thoroughly. Now we have a whole symphony of horrendous stinks. I'm worried the neighbors will smell it. What would they think? It smelled as if we might be burying a corpse in our backyard.
Elsewhere in the garden, spring is arriving in full force. The previous week's rains have triggered an explosion of green, with trees leafing, shrubs blossoming and perennials sending their green shoots up to explore for another season. I am optimistic. A new year. A new chance. Surely I can grow a pumpkin if I just pay more attention and follow the rules. That is not as easy as it sounds for me. But I am determined.