Gourd-geous George The Pumpkin
NORTH PLAIN, East Haddam — A giant pumpkin has many enemies, if you think about it. Not many folks do. Well, I do. I think about it all the time. Now you try. Think about your root rot and golf ball-size hail. Ponder killing frosts. July heat stress. Imagine fall fungi galore, not to mention slugs and bugs — don't get me started on bugs. Visualize apocalyptic "blowout" syndrome: you do a tiptop job of plumping your orange monstrosity beyond all reason, past satire even, and guess what? The hellacious spheroid augments so fast it plain up and busts open, like a steroid-popping supernova. All this and more can happen, easy as pie.
We've escaped such Harpies, Gourd-geous George and I. He's a quarter-ton if he's an ounce. Like some television talk-show hosts, on a good day he can put on 25 pounds. He sits out in our field that leads east, down to the Eightmile River, like a second sun, always rising, resplendent, eclipsing all things pastoral, reigning over his five acres like a 17th-century French monarch.
He's a member of the family now, a newborn, albeit circus material. No barbecue is complete without a viewing, and our guests — mind you, these are people who already have heard me describe the Sultan of Squash in Ruthian prose and probably have viewed a digital image —they all stop dead and gasp "Oh, my," followed by their favorite expletives. The brave ones proceed tenuously as if crossing a minefield, petting George lightly so as not to wake him. They retreat stiffly, the way people do from the edge of the Grand Canyon.
So what's it all about, Dave, you want to know. Why George? Why now? Is it a midlife gardening crisis, perchance? Trying to keep up with neighbor Rob, he of the humongous tractor and two manure spreaders? And where does George go from here, into 150 pumpkin pies?
To be honest, I'm not exactly sure what possessed me a year ago (By the by, don't even think of growing a giant pumpkin if you don't start preparing the previous fall, creating a "hill" out of dastardly materials like raw chicken manure and dried blood). Last fall I saw a giant on display up at the Four Corners, on the stoop of the Hadlyme Country Store. The next thing I remember, I was on the phone telling my ancient and honorable mother, who just turned 93, that I'm going to grow her the biggest durn pumpkin she's ever seen. She took an immediate shine to the notion. There was no turning back. She'll be at the Hadlyme Pumpkin Derby today , at the weigh-in, leading a platoon of Holahans from Brooklyn and Long Island.
Oh, all right, I'm not running for high office, so I'll level with you. I'm not just doing it for Mom. I've been thinking about growing a giant pumpkin since I migrated to the country 30 years ago and heard tales of gnarly Connecticut Yankees up in yonder woods raising misshapen behemoths like it was the most normal thing a body could think of doing. I was the editor of the local paper at the time, and this sure smelled like a story to me. A taciturn bunch they were with an outsider present, until the pumpkin crop came up for rumination. Then they'd blossom into squash trash-talkers who'd rather sit and watch their gourds grow than ogle the Playboy Channel (if they could get cable, which they couldn't back then).
"How's your punkins doing, Sam?"
"I tell you, Julian, I'm worried. My vines are growing so fast, I'm afeard they'll wear my punkins down to a nubbin dragging them across the yard."
But before I challenged such bucolic legends, I had to prove that I could plant a regular garden with straightforward crops like radishes and peas. My first few attempts were laughable, which wouldn't have been so bad if people hadn't actually laughed. I was hacking my truck patch out of unforgiving rocks and dense sod by hand, while neighbor Rob was putting in a zip code worth of corn with his tractor. Deer and woodchucks called my garden home, polishing off what meager produce emerged.
Year by year my gardening skills improved. I built a fence, bought a roto-tiller, made a compost heap, put in a respectable asparagus bed that's still producing. I started listening to hillbilly music (George seems to like it, too). Although I was lagging behind agribusiness next door, I was making progress. Every now and then Rob would come over to inspect. We'd chat and he'd survey my scratchings and nod. This summer, when I introduced him to George, he said, "Dave, you've come a long way."
Then he mused, "How you gonna move that sucker on up to the Pumpkin Derby?"
I thought he'd never ask.
Rob now chairs the Transportation Subcommittee of Team Pumpkin. I'd been doing this alone since early April and the pressure was getting to me. I started the seeds (Dill's Atlantic Giant) indoors on top of the stove — like a presidential campaign it's about heat, not light, at that point. My wife said the house hadn't been that warm all winter.
I wasn't thinking blue ribbon. I just didn't want to get shut out. You want to grow a respectable pumpkin, maybe put it on your Christmas cards. If George outweighed me, it would be a good year. Well, those happy-go-lucky days are long gone.
George blew by me in July, but it was touch and go for months. When that first fruit quickened on the vine in June, all shiny yellow and egg-sized cute, my wife asked if I was growing lemons. I told her dryly, "Time will tell, dear." It almost didn't. I set the one plant out in late May — now one plant is all it takes because pumpkins self-pollinate (sounds a little kinky, I know; perhaps a constitutional amendment is in order). That first week we dodged a nasty frost with a delicate application of hay. Next day I spied the woodchuck. The fat brown assassin was skedaddling across the field, not five feet from George. I set the dog loose, but she couldn't catch her own shadow.
I don't want to scare you, but I had to do something. I couldn't let every four-legged critter in North Plain have at George. You see, George was outside the fence, had to be, with vines that could stretch 30 feet in all directions. So every day I saved up and meandered around George, marking my territory. My wife and son thought I'd finally lost it. The dog just stared.
But I submit to you that extremism in the defense of vegetal excess is no vice. Once I determined the "Chosen One," I set about systematically destroying his inferior siblings, as well as the delicate yellow pumpkin flowers that also were diverting precious resources from King George. Next I severed the vines and buried their ends in the ground to minimize burgeoning leaf growth and water loss. I periodically seasoned George with organic condiments: a dash of bone meal, a layer of mulch, wheelbarrows of kitchen compost, a soupcon of Miracle-Gro -- but no pesticides. I performed that service personally, squishing multifarious pests between my thumb and index finger.
A pumpkin is more than 90 percent water, and this summer and fall Gunga Din had nothing on me. Some Squash Heads apply more than 300 gallons a week. I wasn't counting, but every morning and evening I would hydrate George's root system with my battery of watering cans (there are tricks to proper watering, but I may have told you too much already). My wife pinch-hit for me on occasion (earning the moniker "Mrs. Din"), and when the family went on vacation our friend Andy did the heavy lifting.
Team Pumpkin is filling out nicely. Andy and my wife head up Supplementary Manual Irrigation Support. Andy doubles as Official Digital Photographer while his wife Linda runs Tech Services. Tonya is threatening to write an epic poem. Others have pledged to gather on Derby Day to heft George. Rob has procured a pallet that will serve as George's portable throne. He'll operate the backhoe that hoists our precious cargo onto his flatbed truck for the triumphal 5-mile pilgrimage to Hadlyme Hall.
There's a long tradition of extreme gardening in these parts. The Hadlyme Pumpkin Derby is more than 40 years old. The late Ed Strong, who taught Rob how to grow a big garden, used to protect his magnificent strawberry patch with an electric fence plugged right into his house current. It would knock a 10-point buck — or a tourist — into next week, if not the next world.
The family we bought our property from planted a row of cucumbers one spring across the field to the river, all of 200 yards. When I asked the woman why anyone would do that, she couldn't tell me. It makes perfect sense to me now.