The pumpkins plants are growing slowly, but growing. They are not sprouting lots of new leaves or vines. They just seem to be swelling up a little larger each day - the seedling leaves and the first two true leaves, -- and all the plants are gradually working on a third, which is beginning to unfold. The plant has probably doubled in size this week. I am hoping it is mainly working on its roots right now.
I have also planted some long gourds at the bases of two of my backyard trees. Their fruit looks like very, very long luffa gourds. The world record is something over 10 feet. I want to try them, since gourds seem to do well in this Texas weather.
It's been warm - in the 80s each day, but today thunderstorms moved through. We got a little rain, but now sunshine has returned. Tomorrow we are supposed to get a cool front, dropping night temperatures into the 40s. No danger of frost, but I wonder if this will shock the pumpkin plants after all this warm weather. Maybe those cold frames will earn their name after all.
This week we have ordered some shade cloth. The cold is nothing. I am more concerned about the intensity of the summer sun, which could roast my Mother plant before I have a chance to get a pumpkin out of it. So I am going to try a shade cloth. Tony will build a hoop tunnel over the plant, which will be covered with the cloth to block the midday sun, but allow in the morning and evening sun.
Each day I come home from work and make a patch patrol, surveying the condition of my pumpkin and gourd plants. Amy usually comes along, though she has already inspected the plants before I got home. Lately she is very happy and a little smug: Her pumpkin hospital has at least 10 seedlings that have survived and are growing. I am surprised, pleased, but also now dreading the task of trying to convince her to cull her "patients." I can make room for one small pumpkin vine to wind through the garden, but no more. I do believe she is more excited about these puny orphan seedlings than she is about my giants. I feel a little jealous.
There have been tornadoes wreaking havoc this spring from the Midwest to Tennessee. Yesterday we got our own dose of crazy winds with gales gusting up to 50 mph. The air above the street was swirling with leaves and litter as I drove home from my office in downtown Dallas. Yesterday I had seen the forecast for windy weather and covered the plants. They were lengthening now, growing straight up on thick green stalks, about a foot high. Today I had left them open, not expecting the winds to return even more fiercely. Tony, who was first to arrive home, called me with the bad news: one of the plants had snapped near the base from the high winds. The others were okay. Since the one plant wasn't broken all the way off, I asked him to splint it with a small stick and bandage it back in place with a Bandaid from the medicine cabined. In my gardening experience, vines like these are remarkably good at healing themselves. We could at least try.
But when I arrived home and inspected the patch, I found two other things that worried me more. A few of the leaves on the plants were curling and puckering up. They were still dark green, with no mottling. Very odd. Also a concern: one leaf on our main plant, the LaRue, is showing a smattering of tiny bright yellow spots. What could that be?
I am studying each leaf on each plant every day like a doctor examining a patient. I am too aware of all the problems that can arise: the diseases, bugs, varmints, weather. It seems amazing to me that any plants are able to survive against such odds. I am feeling more in awe every day of these giant growers.
Near 70 here today, 46 tonight
Chilly in RI: 44 during the day, 34 at night.
Plants look good, even the broken one. It's not even wilted. Yellow spots and puckered leaves remain, but new leaves on same plants look fine. Will have to keep watching.
The sun is out and the wind is dying down. I have many chores and am trying to resist the temptation to go check on the plants every five minutes. Is this how all the growers feel? Or is it just first-timer fever?
After emailing pictures of my plants to Dick Wallace, I anxiously awaited his opinion on the yellow spots and puckered leaves. I am like the nervous patient waiting for the results of a CAT scan. It could be bad. It could be very bad. Or it could be nothing. I felt a little ridiculous worrying about it so much. But this was My LaRue. My main plant. And oh my gosh, the plants are getting big. They seemed to grow several inches today. No word from Dick until this evening, and then his email arrives. Good news! He thinks it's okay.
"The plant looks fine to me. Sometimes you can get the small yellow spots from sun damage on a young plant. Does not look like anything I'd get too excited about. Sometimes a calcium deficiency can cause yellow spots also. Over all color of young plant looks good. You don't want any new foliage to be dark green. its a sign of too much nitrogen in the soil. Give it a couple applications of kelp meal or water soluble kelp and keep the wind off the young plant."
Dick went on to offer detailed instructions on how to begin training the main stem to crawl along the ground. Right now, my plants are reaching for the sky. If that continued, gravity would eventually pull the vines down, and the brittle stem might snap. To avoid that, Dick instructed me on how to gradually bend the stem to the earth. "Do this after the day has warmed up. Never try adjusting or pinning down a vine early in the a.m. Wait until the temp gets into the 70 or 80 degree range." Cold vines are brittle vines.
I am relieved that he thinks the yellow spots are insignificant. 98% relieved, anyway. Part of me still worries. What if he's wrong?
Today is Good Friday and Christina's 11th birthday. She is very happy to be 11. We celebrated Christina's birthday this morning, then we all piled into the car at noon to head to Houston to visit family for the Easter holiday.
Usually the trip to Houston is a point-and-shoot kind of drive that takes about 5 hours, including one stop for fast food and gas. From Dallas, you head straight down Interstate 45 to the Gulf Coast, so you can pretty much click into autopilot once you make the turn south. Unless you turn onto the wrong freeway.
Tony was driving, as always. I had pulled out my laptop to get some work done on my pumpkin diary and the book. While I am absorbed, Tony takes the wrong exit and unwittingly heads toward Austin on Interstate 35 - a few hundred miles out of our way. I am buried in my work, and nod absently over the next hour or so as Tony remarks several times on how much the roadside scenery has changed in the four months since he last made the drive. It does not occur to me to be suspicious until we reach Waco. Waco is not on the way to Houston. The cross-country hike through the heart of Texas back to I-45 involves several wrong turns at excessive speeds and some rattled nerves. Now we are nearly three hours behind, and I am privately reassessing whether Tony is the right choice to help me grow my giant pumpkins this year. We have invited family over for pizza and birthday cake, and we are going to be very late. It occurs to me that this is an example of how growing giant pumpkins, in surprisingly subtle ways, takes control of your life.
There is much to occupy us in Houston, but there is still room in my brain to worry about my pumpkin plants. They will be untended for three days while we are in Houston. Temperatures are supposed to be near 90 over the weekend, with brisk 30 mph winds predicted. So many things could go wrong. The cats are locked in the house, making it open house for varmints in our backyard- that dastardly digging armadillo! - to trample or uproot the still-tender plants. A thunderstorm could boil up, with more stem-snapping 50-mph winds, or the sun could burn down too ferociously just when there is no one there too give the plants a drink.
My LaRue is also still worrying me. The yellow spots continue to spread - another leaf is affected with a broader, blotchier yellow mottling. And the very edges of two leaves are turning brown. What does that mean? Certainly it can't be good. Dick's reassurances are now losing their power to comfort me. Something is wrong for sure but I don't know what it is and so I can't fix it. This is beyond frustrating.
On the long drive to Houston I call Ronnie Wallace. He is moving at 100 mph as usual. I catch him in his office at work and he pauses to talk to me as he sends his personal taxes off to the accountant and dispatches workers to power-wash the club's pools. Ron and Dick will be starting their seeds in just a week, but Ron does not sound excited. He sounds stressed and hurried and he is driving hard to put things in order at the club so that he can manage to take the afternoon off for the Southern New England Giant Pumpkin Growers' meet-and-greet spring event tomorrow at Frerich's Farm. I still think he's excited, though he won't admit it. I don't think he really feels it in the fluttery stomach way that some people do. He feels it more like a marathon runner just starting his race and already dreaming of the finish line, and wondering who will get there first, and whether it will be him. And he is running and focused on running and not stopping until he gets there. And already tired. Without any rest in sight.
We left Houston early Monday morning and dropped Tony off at Interncontinental Airport, where he caught a flight back to Dallas. Christina and Amy and I drive on. We have a date in Liberty, Texas - the southern edge of the piney woods of East Texas. I have a story to report for the Wall Street Journal - I am writing about the old Texas tradition of dewberry picking, and I have found two women in Liberty who have made a lifelong Spring tradition of what they call "thicketing." But the logistics of the Easter holiday mean that I must take Christina and Amy with me. The dewberries are ripe and must be picked immediately. My daughters don't complain. They get to miss school. And they get to pick dewberries, diving into thorny thickets and plucking the purplish-black berries from the vine and filling the wicker baskets that our two hostesses, Denise Barkis and Lucette Johnson, are carrying.
After a morning of berry-picking, I tuck my purple-juice-stained notebook back into my big leather bag, and we set out for the long drive back to Dallas to check on our pumpkins. I am in a fever of curiosity and anxiousness and anticipation. How did the plants do in our absence?
It's 2 p.m., and as soon as we're settled into the car I call Tony for a pumpkin report. He was going straight home from the airport to check on the plants before driving into work. The report is good: the plants have grown a foot each! and are looking healthy. But the temperature is soaring. An unbelievable 101.3 degrees. The local news is atwitter about a new high temperature record for April. But I am only worried about the pumpkins. When we arrive home a few hours later I rush straight to the backyard. The plants look good. The LaRue, which gets the most sun and has the best dirt, is growing the fastest - nearly twice as big as the other two. But it still has some worrisome yellow spots, and some of the new leaves have brown edges. What to do?
Another 100 degree day.
My LaRue is zooming. I begin burying the lengthening vine in the dirt, leaving just the leaves sticking up into the air, the way the growers have taught me. That way the vine will begin to put down more roots, which will make it stronger. But we have a casualty. The Rondeau in the compost pile broke in half. It was growing straight upward, toward the bit of blue sky showing through the red oak canopy. I was hoping to coax it along the ground to a sunny stretch, but it was aiming instead at that gap in the leaves of the tree overhead. So when I tried to gently push it down, it snapped right off. Even on a 100 degree day. Amy felt worse about it than I did, and tried to help me mend it. But I'm afraid it's a hopeless cause.
I go on my morning patrol. The weather has cooled down. There is even rain in the forecast. Amy goes with me, and together we inspect the undersides of the pumpkin plant leaves for insect eggs - squash bug eggs. Squash bugs are different from the squash vine borers. Squash bugs are shield-shaped, hard, brittle bugs colored battle-ship gray or brown that will suck the life out of a plant. The compost pile Rondeau is a sad sight. But Amy is optimistic. She says we should leave it there. "If it was in the middle of nature and the wind snapped it and it fell over like that, then probably it would just put out another vine and keep on growing," she reasoned. This seems sensible to me and so we decide to leave it as it is. We've made half-hearted efforts to splint the break, keeping the vine somewhat together. But it's flopping pathetically over to one side.
We take a quick look at Amy's pumpkin hospital. There were at least a dozen healthy seedlings, but bit by bit I have been weeding out the smaller ones when Amy wasn't looking. Now there are just six plants, two small ones and four vigorous ones. I talk to Amy about how we need to reduce them to just two, which is twice as many as we really need. She crouches down beside me at the edge of the flower bed and looks fondly at her plants. "But they are so big and healthy!" she says. She is so proud. "I'm sorry, Amy," I say as gently as possible. "You can leave them there but then none of them will be as healthy - they'll be too crowded. If you keep just two, they will have room to grow and they won't have to share as much space or food." Amy can see the logic in this, but can't bear to face it. She drops her face into her hands. "Okay" she mumbles. "But do it when I'm not looking. I can't stand to kill a plant." I promise to take care of it later when she's not around. By now it is past time when we should leave for school, so we rush inside to wash our hands. We are not late yet.
I am empathizing with Ron Wallace more each day. I am learning about the disaster of enthusiasm - that misguided impulse that if a little bit is good, then a lot should be better. I am always preaching moderation to my children - moderation in all things as the formula for a balanced life. Ironic, since Susan's Full-Blast School of Living has yet to see a day of moderation in much of anything. But we want our children to do better. Except now there were bugs eating my pumpkins, and something had to be done. I'd seen a squash bug in the garden near Amy's Pumpkin Hospital. And I knew that somewhere nearby there were squash vine borer moths lurking, waiting to lay their vine-killing eggs on my plants. I have always minimized the use of chemicals in my garde. I had seen many a vegetable patch devoured because I refused to spray pesticides. But I had vowed to fight back this year, no holds barred. I eyeballed the squiggly holes trenched into the pumpkin leaves by some beetle or caterpillar, and, with steely resolve, I asked Tony to bring out the Malathion.
Malathion is the insecticide that raised such a ruckus in California in the 1990s when they used it for aerial sprayings to obliterate the Mediterranean fruit fly. The EPA had declared there were no long-term health effects in humans associated with the chemical. But I found another report listing symptoms people had reported from high levels of exposure: wheezing, blurred vision, blue skin, runny nose, headache, dizziness, sweating, staggering, convulsions.
I was working at the kitchen table as Tony began to douse the plants with the Malathion solution. The back door next to the table was open, and an intensely unpleasant chemical smell drifted into the house. Oh my gosh. That made me nervous. I closed the door and banned Christina and Amy from going into the backyard, and after awhile Tony returned and showered and then lit the charcoal grill to begin cooking ribs. I swear the flames were burning a little brighter from all those chemical fumes in the air. I worried the pork ribs might be contaminated by airborne insecticide molecules. Just before dark, I walked out to inspect the plants one last time and was alarmed by the thick smell of Malathion still hanging heavily in the air like some potent, garlicky perfume. But everything else seemed okay. And I was wearing shoes. I just tried not to breathe too deeply.
The damage was not evident until morning. The pumpkin leaves were burned - cooked like spinach in blotches all over the leaves, and particularly along the edges where the Malathion collected in pools, or dripped slowly onto the leaf below it. The youngest leaves, those just unfolding and beginning to grow, were limp and black-green. It wasn't completely fatal. The larger leaves seemed to be holding up. But the damage was severe. We immediately began washing off the leaves, and the smell of Malathion again filled the air. I cursed myself, regretting the collapse of my no-pesticide conviction. This is what I get for deciding to fight bugs with nukes. But I was wondering also if Tony might have miscalculated, and perhaps mixed up too strong a batch. The smell was so strong. Too strong. And he may have been thinking that if a little bit is good, more would be better. I consoled myself: At least no one had begun staggering or convulsing.
Tony was horrified by the disaster and blamed himself. We washed the leaves off 10 more times throughout the day. By evening, the plants were looking slightly improved. At least the damage wasn't getting worse. Unfortunately, the LaRue suffered the most. Tony doused it more thoroughly than the others - after all, it's our main plant.
As I walked outside to make my dusk patrol, I noticed the concrete on the back porch was stained purple. We had brought home a bucket of dewberries from my reporting trip and Amy had used some of the juice to make dewberry "paint." Now our porch was dewberry purple. Miraculously, the compost-pile Rondeau plant is still thriving, despite its snapped stem. It isn't growing quite as fast, but that could be because it's in more shade than the others. With Amy's encouragement, I've been trying hard to save it - I heaped up the dirt around the broken stem and buried the rest of the vine, hoping it would send down more roots to compensate. Of all the plants, it was hurt the least by the Malathion. Go figure.
Amy calls me at work. She's in a panic. She'd gotten home from school and checked on the pumpkin plants. She was off playing most of the day as Tony and I had assessed the Malathion damage Sunday. So now she was just discovering it.
"Mom! The pumpkins are really bad off. Even the ones in my pumpkin hospital! They're all drooping and brown. What's the matter with them? Is it a disease or something? They look terrible!"
I explain about the insecticide burning the plants and ask for her assessment. "What do you think, Amy, do you think the plants are doomed?"
She takes the question very seriously, and begins a tour of the plants with me on the phone, talking me through it. "Well, let me see. I think the one that was doing the best is pretty much doomed. It looks TERRIBLE. All the leaves are drooping and it's covered with brown, and the new leaves that are just coming up are all crinkly and dry. And all the things that come off the main vine are drooping and the curly stuff is uncurled. I don't know. I think it has a 30% chance of living.
"The one in the middle of the garden might be able to come back. I give it a 40% chance. And the one in the compost pile can probably come back. Maybe a 50% chance. And my pumpkin hospital plants have about a 60% or 70% chance."
When I get home I walk straight through the house, slinging my work bag onto the bench by the back door, and then heading out to check on the plants. They did look bad. Amy had described them pretty accurately. Several of the damaged leaves had gone completely limp. The others had great brown blotches across them, but were still holding their shape. Tony and I trimmed off the limp ones and left the others, hoping for the best.
I emailed Dick Wallace about the disaster. He writes back quickly:
Susan first of all, divorce your husband. He's already jealous of the time you're spending on the plants. lol Secondly be sure to do two things when spraying your plants:
1. Spray early morning or late evening NEVER DURING THE HEAT OF DAY the sun is strong and will burn leaves especially wet with an insecticide.
2. dose only as directed
Tonight was piano lesson night, a weekly ritual that has become a mother-daughter outing for Christina and me. We drive around afterward and it's our chance to talk. Christina doesn't have much interest in the garden. I wish she would come work outside with me. The garden is where I leave my worries. But Christina relies on her music for the same thing. It's okay that she doesn't see the garden the same way I do. At least not yet. She has many years to figure out that music and gardening make good companions.
I am watching the weather radar for the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It's covered with great orange and yellow blotches surrounded by a haze of bright green. I can actually feel my pulse speed up as I see the blazing colors inch in our direction on the Internet radar map. Through the window of my home office I can see the wind has died down. It's utterly still, and a few raindrops have begun to fall. Thunder rumbles off in the distance - a gentle rolling thunder, not the violent, cracking kind. The storm is not on top of us yet, but it's coming. I am happy. We need the rain to help relieve the drought we've had all winter. It's easy enough to water our plants with the hose, but the chemically treated municipal water can't compare to fresh rainwater when it comes to the garden. The garden loves a good rainstorm even more than I do.
Of course, if the storm gets rough, I'll have to worry about the pumpkin plants. Though I don't know what else worse could happen to them. My beautiful Emmons plant - my great hope after the LaRue became a toxic spill victim -- snapped its main vine last night. I had just returned home from a trip to Phoenix, flying in late and getting home about midnight. Tony waited up for me, and together we took a flash light out to inspect the pumpkins. I hadn't seen them in two days, and though I had been given detailed reports over the phone by Amy and Tony, I was keen to see for myself how they were recovering from the Malathion Incident. The flashlight beam caught the glistening reflection of slug trails among the marigolds, but I'm reluctant to mention this to Tony for fear he might want to do something about it. Something toxic.
It's hard to get a complete picture of the plant in the narrow beam of the flashlight. The Emmons has been worrying me. The end of the vine has been growing straight up into the air, and even beginning to curve backward. The leading 12 inches of the vine, with its knot of new leaves at the end, sways in the air like a cobra doing its snake dance. The problem, I figure, is that it is growing at the edge of some shade. If it comes forward another foot or two, it will be in full sun. But it doesn't know that. So it's curving up and backward, reaching toward the sun that passes in the sky behind it. I'm not sure what to do about this.
But now I see we have a more immediate problem. The vine has suddenly flopped forward on its own, and I can see why. It's snapped at ground level. The crack across the vine is wide open and oozing a clear, watery fluid, but the bottom half remains attached. I quickly lift the vine back into its cobra position and send Tony into the house for some wooden shish kabob skewers and Bandaids. While I hold the vine and shine the flashlight, Tony carefully splints and bandages the break. We reinforce it with some more sticks, and leave it to fend for itself the rest of the night. I am dismayed, but not too much. The other vines have managed to keep growing after snapping.
And sure enough, in the morning the Emmons looks downright perky in Curad. After I've walked Christina and Amy to school, I return for another patrol of the patch. The long gourd vines are sprinting up the trunks of the trees. The pumpkins are looking much better. Rain is expected and I am off work today. All is right in the world. I crouch down in front of the Emmons and give it some encouraging advice - "Come on. This way. Grow this way. You'll be much better off if you just come this way. There's more sunshine over here." I plead and cajole. But I keep my voice low so that the neighbors won't hear.
Tony thinks we should just start over. We have had so many disasters - snapped vines, crinkled, yellowing leaves, toxic poisonings. Honestly, how does anybody grow one of these dem things? Much less get a 1,000-pound pumpkin out of it. There is just so much that can go wrong. Now I think our damaged, limping plants are bothering Tony. They're a testimonial to our bungling. He's absorbed the lessons we've been learning and is ready to apply them with a fresh start. But I'm not ready to give up yet. And besides, it's way too late to be starting a new plant. Tony reluctantly concedes the point. He'll stick it out with our wounded crew. But still, "I can't wait until next year," he says.
The rain today has been light and sweet. The girls are home from school, and now Amy is out in the backyard calling earthworms. I know because she came rushing in a minute ago with a glistening red-brown worm curling around her knuckles. "Look mom," she said excitedly. "I called an earthworm!" Amy had read somewhere that the way to call earthworms is to wiggle and vibrate the earth when the ground is wet with rain. I would never have believed it if not for the evidence dangling from Amy's fingers. I was still skeptical. A coincidence, surely. She just happened to find a worm, and thought she'd "called" it. But then she brought in eight more, one after the other, all summoned to the same spot in the yard beside our concrete patio where she had plunged a small trowel into the earth and was wiggling away to "vibrate" the soil. I was convinced. Amy: worm whisperer. I directed her to put a couple of the worms in the flowerbed under the Chinese pistachio tree, and the rest at the very edge of the pumpkin patch where our LaRue lived. "Not too close to the plant," I told her. I figure that's a toxic waste site now, and a death sentence for any beast.