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.
Today was a pollination extravaganza, and probably one of the worst days for it, with temps expected in the mid-90s. Just after dawn, before the sun was even up, Tony and I went out into the yard to pollinate our first giant pumpkin. I was relieved to see that our Emmons had two blooming males ready to supply the pollen. And it took only a matter of minutes to pluck the flowers, peel the petals, and paint the pollen on to the female on the side vine. Then we covered her with a light net to keep bugs out.
It was now clear that the other bloom on the LaRue would bloom the next morning when we would be in Vernon. So we could either let nature take its course, or try to pollinate it that evening, prying open its petals 12 hours earlier than nature had planned. I wasn't sure if this would work, but it was better than leaving insects to do the job. I hadn't seen any bees working in our yard this year, so the chance of a natural pollination seemed remote.
After Tony left for work I woke Christina and Amy and we went out into the backyard to pollinate another one of Amy's pumpkins. It was Christina's turn. She crouched down and carefully dragged and twirled her pollen brush over the flower's stigma. Amy, on hands and knees, nosed in beside her, worried that Christina wasn't being careful enough. "Not so hard!" she hissed. Christina ignored her. The job was done. I tied up the flower with the same string I'd used on the first female flower, which now had shriveled up to a brown blob at the end of a baby pumpkin that was growing as big as a plum.
At lunch time, with the mercury at 91 degrees, Tony drove home from his office in Fort Worth to rig up a cooling box for our pollinated female with a Styrofoam container and a bag of ice. He put the modified cooler upside-down over the pollinated pumpkin flower. We hoped that would create a nice cool zone for the bloom so that the pollination would have a chance.
By the time he got to the house at 12:30 p.m., the leaves on the plant were already wilting in the heat. But he noticed that only the part of the plant in direct sun was wilting. The part that was growing in the shade was still upright and perky. So, we decided, time for the shade cloth.
Ever since the shade cloth had arrived in the mail, Tony had been itching to go to Home Depot for the supplies to build an arched shade cover over the plant. The metallicized silver shade cloth was designed to block only 20% of the light - we had been warned that pumpkins needed lots of sun to grow, and shading it too much might keep it cooler, but would hinder it's growth.
By the end of the day, before we piled in the car to head to Vernon, there was still ice in the cooler, and the pollinated bloom was cool to the touch. Meanwhile the second female on the LaRue had turned orange, signaling that it was ready to open the next morning. Gently, I pried apart its petals and pollinated it with a male from the Emmons, and another one from the LaRue for good measure. I had no idea whether it would have a chance - what is the window for pollinating these females? I suppose we'll find out soon enough - the pumpkin would either begin to grow, or within a few days it would shrivel up and fall off.
In hotter, dryer Vernon, parked near the Oklahoma border in northwest Texas, the mercury hit 102 degrees last weekend, though a brisk breeze made it feel cooler. We had fun, but we headed back to Grand Prairie Sunday afternoon feeling slightly anxious. How had the pumpkins fared in the hot weather? Had the pollinations taken hold?
Usually, Tony begins unloading the car before he even walks in the house. This time, Tony was right on my heels as I made a beeline through the house and went straight into the backyard. We jolted to a standstill. Disaster! The LaRue was in an advanced state of wilt. Every leaf draped lifelessly over its stem like a scrap of green cloth hanging on a stick, as limp as a flag on a dead calm day. We thought the LaRue was a goner for sure. The Emmons wasn't wilted quite so much, maybe because it received more shade during the day.
I snapped a picture of the poor, wilted LaRue, and emailed it to Jack LaRue to show him how his poor plant was faring. He was sympathetic - to the plant. "That poor plant, taken from the cool, Pacific Northwest and planted in Texas," he wrote back. "WOW what a shock for that seed." Jack liked the idea of a shade cloth. "I think whenever a plant is stressed like that it starts to shut down and go into survival mode," he cautioned me. "When this happens the pumpkins will slow down or stop."
Tony had to do all the work, of course. But I think he was secretly delighted at this turn of events. For weeks he'd been asking eagerly whether he shouldn't go ahead and put up the tent structure for the shade. I had put him off. There were other chores that seemed more urgent to me. Now Tony moved into a blur of action, leaving immediately for Home Depot and returning with our Honda Pilot bristling with pvc pipe, metal stakes, rope, and other building supplies. He is an architect, after all. And he was going to get to build something.
While Tony was at the store I gave both plants a good soaking with the hose, which perked them up a little. By evening, Tony had gotten half a tent structure up over the LaRue.
The good news of the day was that the pollination on both of the LaRue pumpkins appeared to have taken. The blooms had shriveled up to mottled brown globs capping a baby pumpkin nearly the size of a tennis ball. The pumpkins were bright yellow spheres nestled into the deep green world of grass and leaves under the shade tunnel. A female bloom on the Emmons, meanwhile, was blushing orange and would be ready to pollinate in the morning. And Amy's plant had weathered the hot days without a hint of problem. The two pumpkins on her biggest plant were growing rapidly, with her first already as big as a small grapefruit. If the Larue survived, we were officially in the race!
This week was full of beginnings and endings. Female blooms had begun to pop up all over the plants, and we pollinated several more, including two on the Emmons and another on Amy's plant.
Tony set aside this Memorial Day weekend to expand the shade tunnel and assemble a misting system for the LaRue. I'm scared to add up all the money we're spending in our panic to save the plants from the Texas heat. Between the shade and the misting, we hope to keep the main part of the plant cool enough to bring a pumpkin to maturity in the blistering heat of August. Two of our Atlantic Giants are growing well - the LaRue that got the ice-cooler treatment, and one on the Emmons. But the LaRue on the main vine that we had pollinated prematurely stopped growing and its shiny yellow skin began to dull.
Tony clipped it off. Time to move on. There is a new female on the main vine, about two feet further along, that should be ready to pollinate Monday morning - Memorial Day.
As for the long gourds, it was slowly beginning to dawn on me what a terribly weird plant these were. They put out their dancing moon-lit males by the dozens every night. But the females seemed finicky. Many would bloom, but none would grow. Even the gourd we'd hand-pollinated had withered and died. But now the new females were getting bigger, and the baby gourds they were carrying were longer - about four to five inches, about the size of a very skinny string bean. Two more females opened tonight, and we decided to try hand-pollinating again. About 10 p.m., Tony lifted Amy on to his shoulders, and the three of us traipsed across the grass into the dark recesses of the backyard to our long gourds. I held the flashlight while Amy snipped a few males, which Tony held for her between his teeth. Amy swabbed the females with the males, and then we all went to bed.
This morning we checked on our pollinated gourds and a shocking sight greeted us. The gourds had nearly doubled in size overnight! The largest was about 10 inches long, and about the thickness of a pencil. And we found another one, pollinated by nature, even longer and thicker. It was a little disturbing, these long, squiggly green things that looked like tentacles or some other kind of animated appendages that grew so fast they might run across the yard one night and reach out and wrap around my neck and…. It did fire up the imagination, this plant.
Inspired by the gourds' blistering pace of growth, Tony took a tape measure and made the rounds of all our pumpkins, encircling each sphere for a simple circumference measurement. Here is what we recorded:
Amy's #1 main vine: 18"
Amy's #1 side vine: 15.5"
LaRue #1 side vine: 20"
Emmons #1 main vine: 13.5"
Tony and I made one last midnight inspection of the plants before we turned in. As we discussed the relative merits and chances of each of our pumpkin offspring, a head sprang up over the wood fence bordering the back of our yard - our neighbor was still awake, too. She must have been standing on something as she rested her chin on top of the six-foot fence, surveying with big eyes the massive silver-laced shade structure that now blanketed a full quarter of our backyard. "I can't believe this. This is unbelievable," she said. "You guys really take the cake." And so on.
I don't think she was speaking admiringly. We are now the weird-neighbors-growing-giant-pumpkins.
This evening at 8 p.m., we measured again.
Amy's #1 main vine : 18.5" (24 hour growth: .5 inch)
Amy's #1 side vine: 16.5" (24 hour growth: 1 inch)
LaRue #1 side vine: 21" (24 hour growth: 1 inch)
Emmons #1 main vine: 16" (24 hour growth: 2.5 inch)
Long gourd #1: 11" (24 hour growth: .5 inch)
Long gourd #2: 15" (24 hour growth: n/a)
Tony is making me a little nervous. He is attacking this problem of pumpkins with all his male might. He actually drew a detailed planning diagram of the misting system. To scale. My sister and I laugh because we both married men who can take a full hour to hang a single picture. We can do the job in five minutes, and bet that no normal person can tell the difference without getting out a tape measurer. I do my gardening the same way, operating on instinct and luck and a little bit of laziness.
Then again, growing giant pumpkins is by far the most challenging bit of gardening I've ever tackled. I am actually glimpsing in Tony the same precision and obsession that drives the competitive growers. There is no doubt that without Tony's diligence and hard work, we already would have failed miserably. It is only through his organization that we have six, as of today, pumpkins growing in our backyard. But I would like him to have fun, too.
We haven't had rain for about a month now. Much of the state of Texas remains in a drought, not relieved much by the occasional cloudburst. At home, we are settling into a pumpkin routine now. Tony and I both check on the pumpkin as soon as we get home. There is less work now that the misting system is up and the shade tunnel built. And since the vines are now growing out over the grass, there's no more burying to do, either. So it's watch and wait and watch and wait.
We debate when to fertilize and when to water. Nothing is clear cut when it comes to growing giant pumpkins. Now that we have two nice-sized baby pumpkins started, we are measuring every day. At first the pumpkin was growing visibly each day and it was exciting to see the difference from morning to night. But when it got to be a little larger than a big Texas grapefruit, the growth was less obvious.
Today, the LaRue pumpkin on the side vine is exactly two weeks old, and it measured 27 inches this morning in circumference - about the size of a volleyball. The Emmons pumpkin is three days younger but already 22.5 inches - bigger than the LaRue was at this stage. But the Emmons is on a much, much smaller plant in a much, much crummier location, so we'll see if it keeps up the pace.
I am sad to report that Amy's first two pumpkins have stopped growing in her hospital. They've just stalled out at 19 and 18 inches circumference. The plant isn't growing much anymore, either, and some of the older, bigger leaves have yellowed and died. I am beginning to worry vine borers could be at work. Horrid things.
For the moment, the real star of the garden is the long gourd. We have one that's been growing four to five inches a day and today is 36 inches long. The world record is about 117 inches, so we're almost a third of the way there already! It has a twisty shape - like a skinny, corkscrew balloon. The skin in the last couple of days has taken on a beautiful marbling effect, with light green swirling into the overall darker green color. I am really falling in love with this weird plant.
We've also got a few other gourds growing, all pollinated naturally. I've concluded after three failed hand-pollinations that these long gourds don't like to be interfered with.
I am about to say goodbye for two weeks. I am taking Christina and Amy to Houston for one of our extended summer visits. We will stay with my mom, and Christina and Amy will be able to play with their cousins, who live next door. I'll work out of The Wall Street Journal's Houston bureau.
Tony will stay home. He will be completely responsible for the pumpkins. The plan is for him to report to me every day on their progress, take measurements and email me pictures every few days.