Ever since I became a teenager, I’ve wished I had something of record-setting size—something giant, gargantuan even, something so big it’s downright scary. (Hint it begins with a “p” and ends with an “s.”) Yes, I’m talking pumpkins.
I don’t know exactly why I’ve been so passionate in my pursuit of prize pumpkins, and before you go all Freudian on me, I can assure you it has nothing to do with Freud. Trust me. I know what I’m talking about because in college I dated a psychology major.
My father also wanted a bigger pumpkin. Each year before Halloween we’d go searching, and he wasn’t happy until he’d bought the biggest pumpkin on the lot, and then he was as delighted as a little boy sitting inside a carved-out pumpkin—like in the photo I once saw in a gardening catalog. So, clearly, I inherited my giant pumpkins envy.
I’ve learned that huge pumpkins are generally what are known as “squash type” (translation: “terrible for pies”). They’re often less orange/more cream-colored, and the bigger they are, the more grotesquely shaped they’re likely to be. The most widely available varieties are Big Max, Big Moon, and Atlantic Giant. I tried all three of these and one year even ordered a few seeds from a 250-pound pumpkin that cost $5 each.
Before I tell you the results of my labors over a several-year span, I want to fill you in on the challenges of growing this mammoth fruit? vegetable? berry? Who knows what it is? The first challenge is keeping the vines alive for all of the 120-day- (4-months!) long growing season to produce a mature pumpkin? squash? gourd? Who knows what it is?
The vines are susceptible to all kinds of diseases that make the leaves wilt and look like they’re splotched with mildew. I can’t tell you how disappointing it is to see your vine all wilted down. Furthermore, a whole rogue’s gallery of pests constantly attack the plants: thrips, squash bugs, and the most pernicious of all pumpkin pests—the squash vine borer, which burrows into the vine and eats it from the inside out, choking off the nutrients meant to grow the fruits.
I waged war against all of these enemies. Obsessive war. I constantly dusted the vines with Sevin; I wrapped the vines at the soil level with tinfoil to thwart the borers; I spread Christmas tree tinsel around the tinfoil (said to confuse the attacking insects); I fertilized the vines with Miracle Gro applied directly to the leaves (foliar feeding) to bypass the squash vine borers’ chokehold. And one year I even ordered parasitic nematodes (to attack the borers), which I injected directly into the vines with a huge garden syringe. I’m sure the neighbors wondered what the hell I was doing in my backyard wearing a white lab coat and a crazed expression, holding the largest hypodermic needle they’d ever seen and giving the neighborhood just what it needed—more parasites.
Every year was a race to see if the vines could produce sizable fruit before the vines died. Some races you lose, and some others you also lose.
Actually, I had what an unambitious person might term a “modicum” of success. One year my patch produced several average-sized pumpkins. One with a long, ugly dent in it became my favorite jack-o’-lantern of all time when my stepson carved an agonized, shocked face—and imbedded a hatchet in the dent, right above what would be Jack’s temple.
That same year, among the average fruits, I grew my personal record best: a Big Moon orangey orb weighing in at 65 pounds—sadly, not big enough for even the smallest child to fit in and only 2,643.8 pounds short of the world record.
There’s always next year.
Until then, I’ll comfort myself with the wisdom that my stepson showed me—that if you creatively make the best of what Nature gave you to work with, size doesn’t always matter.
(Bill Spencer is author of Uranus Is Always Funny: Short Essays to Make You Laugh )