I think of my plants as male and female based on the grower who gave me the seed: so LaRue, from Jack LaRue, is a male and Emmons, from Geneva Emmons, is a female. Rondeau, from Peter Rondeau in Rhode Island, is a male.
The LaRue is reviving - good new growth on both ends of the plan. If you ignore the middle with the old, poisoned leaves, it doesn't look so bad anymore. The broken Emmons is hanging in there. Growth has slowed since the break, but she's stubborn and looks healthy.
Of all the pumpkin plants in the garden, Amy's transplants in her pumpkin hospital seem to be doing the best. The leaves are healthy and green and the vines are growing like gangbusters. So Amy's hospital plants are out-performing our specially bred giants. Of course, the whole backyard is becoming a pumpkin hospital now.
We gave the plants another dose of our compost tea fertilizer. If stink is any sign of potency, we've got one zinger of a brew. The seaweed and fish juice, compost, manure, blood meal and assorted food scraps have been sitting in a bucket stewing for about two months now. The stench has evolved from dead-animal to fresh sewage. Tony made Christina and Amy help stir up a batch for the garden. It's part of our parental crusade to involve them more in the responsibilities of the household. Both girls are putting up a valiant fight with smart-aleck comments, rolling eyes, muttered mumblings of contempt. Tony is firm and measured. I am patient until I lose patience, which is usually a fairly exciting moment. Christina and Amy are learning that arguing doesn't do much good, and it's much easier to just do what needs to be done. But they have their relapses.
Neither complained too much this time about the compost tea. Christina demanded a paper face mask. Amy put hers on, pinched it firmly onto her nose, but then was dismayed because she couldn't finish eating her Skittles candy with the filter covering her mouth. They donned rubber gloves and headed out into the backyard like a team of HazMat workers responding to a toxic spill. Tony had them each take a cup and dip out a concentrated dose of the compost tea, and then mix it with water in a 5-gallon bucket. Christina squealed and giggled at the horrific odor. She giggled and squealed so much that she tipped the cup after it was full and spilled some on her foot. It might have been sulfuric acid the way she jumped around the yard, dragging her foot against the grass to wipe it off.
The long gourd vines are growing about two feet a week, climbing straight up the trees. The one planted beneath the smaller white ash gets the most sun, but the more-shaded vine under the Chinese Pistachio is growing faster. The growth is accelerating - 8 inches in the past 24 hours. At this rate, it should pop out the top of the canopy in another two weeks, if not sooner. The vines are also starting to put out a bunch of side vines and male flowers. I have no idea if I should be thinking about pruning or "managing" these vines. Another research job awaits me.
In the early dark before we went to bed, Tony and I and Amy, who had yet to be coaxed to sleep even though it was a school night, went out with the flashlight for the last inspection of the day. To my surprise, I found the first female flower on one of my gourd vines had opened. This could be my first pollination! I looked around and saw another spot of glowing white ducking under some leaves around the bend of the tree trunk. A male flower! Open and ready to do the deed. Gleefully, I plucked the bloom and peeled away the petals while Tony held the flashlight and Amy looked on, enthralled that she got to witness this important event. I didn't see much pollen on the male, but I tapped and rubbed it against the center of the female anyway. Now we'll just wait and see what happens.
The pumpkin plants are growing fast and beginning to spread. My LaRue is now about 20 feet long if you count the front and the back vine. It is an odd looking plant, with its dead spot in the middle. The Emmons is about half that long, but still looks more lush and healthy.
Good rain last night. Good sun today. Good growing weather. My two-headed LaRue, now growing two main vines in opposite directions from the stump, is recovering nicely. Emmons is still beautiful, despite her snapped neck. I am heading to Rhode Island tomorrow to see Dick Wallace and the gang.
We had one of our typical Mount Olympus, Fury-of-the-Gods-style Texas thunderstorms sweep through in the middle of night, with its house-shaking thunder and winds and the kind of brilliant lightning that you can see flashing right through your closed eyelids as you sleep. I usually enjoy these storms in a semi-conscious slumber while I still catch my 40 winks. But not this night. I had only one thought in my head as the thunder jarred me awake and I heard the gushing sound of the rain pouring off the roof onto the backyard patio: MY PUMPKINS! The rain wasn't my worry - that would be good for the plants. But the wind was blowing violently. I could hear the tree branches bashing against the house as the wind whistled and shrieked. At one point, I heard the tap tap tap on the roof that could only mean hail stones mixing with the rain. My pumpkins were doomed! I nudged Tony awake to share my anxiety, but he mumbled something incoherent and didn't budge. I figured I should probably let him be. Tony was excellent about jumping out of bed in the middle of the night for suicidal missions to check out scary noises. But rescuing pumpkin plants in the middle of a violent thunderstorm didn't rise to the same level of urgency.
I wasn't eager to go stampeding out into the night, either. What could I do? Throw my body across the plants to shield them? Hmmm. Maybe. I drifted back into sleep, but I dreamed bad dreams. Pumpkin nightmares. I was inspecting the garden in the yellowy first light of morning, and I found that the wind had literally blown one plant out of the ground. I had that sickening, sinking feeling of disappointment and dismay. The vine lay crumpled up against the fence on the other side of the yard. It had snapped off at the stump - the main root was still in the ground. But there were lots of other roots growing along the vine. I picked up the limp, prickly corpse, which drooped across my arm like a dead snake, and dragged it back to the planting spot. I laid it out and desperately began trying to replant it as the last vestiges of the storm still blew half-heartedly around me. As I worked, scraping away mud with my hands, a black cloud of despair hovered. All that work. All those hopes. All those dreams…...
So it was a relief when Tony shook me awake with news that the plants were fine. A little blown about and muddied, but generally no harm done. One of our four gourd vines, though, had snapped off at the tip. This was not so bad. I had read that some growers snap them off anyway to allow the side vines, which set the fruit, to dominate. Tony left for work and I jumped into the shower, dressed, woke Christina and Amy, and then hurried outside to see for myself. I could tell Tony had straightened up the plants and re-staked the ends of the vines to keep them from getting blown over again. But they seemed just fine.
School is beginning to wind down, along with a thousand new distractions. We spent some time in the pumpkin patch today evaluating the week's growth. After several inches of rain the week before, the weather warmed up steadily through the week, with grey overcast days giving way to bright sunshine the past three days. Today we hit 92 degrees, which was warm, but still feels like spring compared to the 101 we had those two weird days in April.
So the vine on our LaRue has grown 38 inches in the last six days. That's a little under 6.5 inches a day, which doesn't seem fast enough. But the LaRue is putting out tons of side vines, so the plant is using a lot of its energy to grow those. It remains a two-headed vine. I've decided not to cut off the back vine. I got conflicting advice when I was in Rhode Island last weekend. I think the competitive approach would be to cut it off. But the what-the-heck-let's-just-see-what-happens approach is to leave it growing. So I'm leaving it.
I'm sure that's also slowed down the progress of the front main vine. It's reached 10.5 feet as of today, with the back vine already 6.5 feet, even though it got at least a month later start. I have a female starting on the LaRue about 8 inches from the tip of the main. The suggestive swelling of the baby pumpkin beneath the beginning of the flower is about the size of a green pea right now. This seems like a good prospect for pollination. If I wait too much longer, we'll be getting into the blistering hot weather and pollination may not even be possible. I also have a female on one of the side vines growing out over the grass. This female bulb is a little larger and a little greener than the one on the main vine, which is quite yellow. I think I'm going to try pollinating this pumpkin, too. If we end up with two pumpkins, I'll make the decision then which one to cull.
The Emmons, meanwhile, continues to win the beauty contest, but is growing more slowly. She now measures just shy of 8 feet long here on Day 54 since germination, and has big, beautiful, rounded leaves. We're trenching ahead of it right through the lawn. But she's not putting out any side vines since the snap, so obviously she was hurt. The plant only gets about half the sunlight of the LaRue, growing between the back of the house and the children's play house, so that's part of the problem, too. The Emmons has the tiniest beginnings of a female bloom right at the tip. We'll see how it goes.
The real success story in our garden is Amy's Pumpkin Hospital. One of her pumpkin plants is out-growing everything in sight - charging across the lawn and down the border of our flower garden. It has been putting out side vines like crazy, so I'm trimming all the vines off along the flower bed side in what I've heard called the "flag pattern." The vines on the other side are growing out over the grass. Already, there are about half a dozen female flowers beginning to show.
Amy's other plant is only about half as big, but it has a female flower nearly ready to bloom. Amy is very excited and checks on her plants almost as frequently as I check on mine.
All the plants are blooming like mad - though only male flowers are opening right now. Between the LaRue and the Emmons we have probably four to six male blooms opening each morning. They are so beautiful - the size of a grapefruit, brilliant, waxy orange with creped edges. I found a bug in the very first flower to open this week, on Monday. It was crawling around down in the bottom - a small yellowish green beetle with black spots, about a quarter-inch long. I didn't recognize it, so I left it alone. I hated to kill it in case it turned out to be a good bug. But I worried it was a bad actor. The only thing I could find in my reference books that looked similar was a cucumber beetle - not a good thing. But as it turned out, it didn't matter. When I got home from work, the beetle was still inside the flower, dead as a doornail. Was it the systemic insecticide we were using? Or is that Malathion still sticking around? I'm nervous about all these chemicals.
I did a little internet research on why gourd vines bloom at night. Moths pollinate them. So that made sense. The gourd flowers are delicate, effervescent white, with a crinkly texture that make them almost glow in the dark like low-watt lightbulbs. The perfect moth lure.
I've been checking the weather in Rhode Island - it's been raining almost nonstop all week. Temperatures in the 40s and 50s, so no frost. Just lots and lots of rain and clouds. Forecast says it will warm up a little this week - into the 60s. But calls for more showers all week. This is not a good start for them.
A grower on bigpumpkins.com reports 10 inches of rain in last few days. Yikes.
I've watched summer arrive in the tiny black numbers in the lower right-hand corner of my computer screen at work, where the outside temperature is recorded in real time. As the end of May approaches, the numbers are ticking higher each day, up to 93 today. From now on, it will be a steady march toward the 100 degree mark we'll be hitting regularly by July.
This is bad news for the pumpkins in my home patch. Pollination time is at hand, and I had been warned by the New England growers that pumpkins need cooler temperatures for successful pollination - 85 degrees, not 95 degrees.
Amy performed out first pumpkin pollination this morning. The female bloom on her biggest plant grew steadily until yesterday evening, when it blushed pale orange - the signal that it was ready to open the next day. This was a major household event. I jumped from bed this morning and went straight out to the backyard to see if her bloom had opened. And there it was, its petals open and welcoming, a deep glowing orange. I ran to wake up Amy with the news.
There was one matching male flower open and ready for action. Amy snipped it off and peeled away each petal to expose the pollen-packed stamen. I pulled back the petals of the female bloom to give Amy a clear view. She crouched next to the plant, leaned in close, and then straightened up in shock.
"Oh my gosh!" she said. "What's the matter with it? It looks so different." She was staring at the flower's stigma, which reminded me of a tiny clump of orange brain coral. It was as if she'd just accidentally caught the flower naked. Here was an unexpected lesson in the birds and the bees. The female flower is a radical change from the male we'd been used to seeing. Male flowers bloom atop a tall, slender stalk that can be anywhere from 6 inches to a foot long. The stems of the female flowers are shorter, and at the base of the flower is a tiny, embryonic pumpkin that swells to the size of a large marble by the time the flower opens. Inside at the deep center of the flower, the male has its stamen bristling with pollen particles. This is where the bees get the pollen to carry to the female flower so that the baby pumpkin can be fertilized. It's a lot like man-woman stuff, actually.
Amy recovered her wits and leaned over again with the stamen poised in her hand like an artist hovering over a blank canvas. Concentrating, she carefully, ever so gently, painted the crumbs of pollen onto the center of the female flower. I fetched a string and we lifted the flower petals back up into a closed position and tied them there, preventing any other insects from getting in and mucking things up. And that was it. Our first pollination.
I'm assessing our female flowers - the ones that will make our pumpkins. I've got two females gathering steam on the LaRue - one on a side vine, and another on the main vine. Neither was ideally placed. World Records aren't grown on side vines, but then again, I wasn't going for a world record. And the female on the main vine was only 11 feet out from the base. I would have preferred it to be a little further out, but this might be as good as it gets. There was not another female flower in sight on the plant. With the weather quickly heating up, it would only get more difficult to pollinate the longer we waited. Even if another female showed up this week, it would be June before it would be ready to pollinate. So all this seemed clear enough. We pollinate and see what happens. Except life is never that easy, is it?
As I watched the flower grow larger day by day, and counted up on my fingers how long before it might be ready for pollination - about 10 days from when it first appeared - I realized in horror that it was probably going to open over the next weekend, when we would be away visiting Tony's parents in Vernon, Texas. If the bloom opened Saturday when I wasn't there, it would go unpollinated - and who knows how long before another female would come along? The side vine female looked like it would open first. Maybe tomorow? If we were lucky. And you know how that goes.