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Jack O’Lantern Seeks Jill O’Lantern

** Here’s one from the archives. In other words, I wrote it three years ago when I could count the number of readers on my fingers and toes.** 

 

Who doesn’t love selecting that perfectly shaped, deep orange Halloween pumpkin? No other fruit or vegetable evokes such thoughts of autumn’s colorful leaves and cooler days. Since picking a pumpkin is fun, I thought growing my own pumpkin would be even more fun. I have friends who were surprised to see pumpkins emerge in their yards on the site of the remains of last year’s squirrel ravaged jack o’ lanterns.  How difficult could it be to purposefully plant pumpkin seeds and nurture them into would be jack o’ lanterns?

In past years, I’ve attempted this feat with marginal success. I planted seeds and coaxed them into sprouts only to be defeated by assorted mammals, insects, drought and unintended neglect. Vowing this year would be different, I sowed my seeds outdoors and soon sprouts sprouted, leaves unfurled and vines began trailing. Optimism for a home-grown pumpkin was at an all time high. Each day I watered my little pumpkin patch occasionally indulging the fledglings with fertilizer. When the first pumpkin blossoms formed, then bloomed, Oregano and I were euphoric. We’d never had blooms before. Surely little round pumpkins couldn’t be far behind.

By August,  the euphoria at seeing pumpkin blossoms faded to concern for the well being of my pumpkins to be. There was nothing that even remotely resembled a baby pumpkin growing in my pumpkin patch. No round bundle of joy to nurture and rotate so it doesn’t grow to be lopsided. How would I ever have a pumpkin by Halloween? I did what any expectant gardener would do; I consulted the internet where thirty minutes of research yielded quite a lesson in pumpkin procreation.

Pumpkin blossoms are only open for one day before they shrivel and die. Bees are the primary pollen distribution network. If the bees aren’t in the mood or aren’t in the neighborhood, the pumpkins miss their window of opportunity to leave their mark on the world and die as virgins. There seems to be a lot that needs to happen in a short period of time to create that little miracle of life known as a pumpkin. Most of the gardening websites suggested human intervention in the pollination process to improve pumpkin production. To be honest, that’s a little more involved than I was planning on getting with my pumpkins. My desperation for  little orange pumpkin babies was so strong, I was willing to resort to artificial insemination. After reading up on the various methods of pumpkin matchmaking I was ready to help my shy pumpkin flowers do the deed. One website even jokingly suggested setting the mood with a little Marvin Gaye or Barry White.

As is important in most baby-making processes, a male and female are necessary. It was crucial for me to tell the difference between male and female pumpkin flowers and after searching Google images, I confidently returned to the pumpkin patch to get personal with my pumpkins. Since it was late in the day, blossom shrinkage had already occurred and I was forced to pull the petals apart to peek at my pumpkins’ private parts. This seemed akin to pulling down their pants and I found myself apologizing to the pumpkins for this invasion of their privacy.

All too quickly it became obvious why I didn’t have any pumpkin babies budding on the vines. I had a homosexual pumpkin patch! There wasn’t a single female pumpkin blossom in the entire patch. My dreams of a home-grown jack o’ lantern were withering and dying faster than a day old pumpkin blossom. Trying to stem my disappointment, I stripped off my gardening gloves and consulted websites where I learned that this was a common issue. Apparently the male flowers are first to arrive on the scene to attract the pollinators to the area after which the female flowers should begin to grow. Mother Nature, being a wise woman, doesn’t want to waste her females’ precious six hours of fertility waiting to get laid if there’s no one around to get the job done.

Each morning I trekked to the pumpkin patch to peek at the newly opened flowers hoping a female had decided to crash my all male pumpkin party. Some may consider this the behavior of a pumpkinphile. While I found my new fixation on the sexual orientation of my pumpkin blossoms a bit unusual, I did not to think of myself as a pumpkinphile. I wasn’t doing anything criminal nor did I have any intent on harming the pumpkins. I was not getting some sick satisfaction from this – well at least I wouldn’t until I saw a baby pumpkin growing. Since I was in this for the offspring and not the sex, I preferred to classify myself as a pumpkin fertility facilitator. I found myself in a situation with which The Peanuts character Linus would be very familiar; I was waiting for The Great Pumpkin to arrive. When that female pumpkin blossom does finally rise from my pumpkin patch, she’s going to have her pick of guys and I will be at the ready to quickly pollinate her before she withers away.

Epilogue

Several weeks later I visited the Green Animals Topiary Garden near Newport, Rhode Island. While walking through the various gardens that day I recognized male and female pumpkin blossoms on the vines. I was curious to see how this professional pumpkin patch was progressing. As I approached, I saw that there were small, green pumpkins maturing on the vines. It was at that moment, on a rainy day, in a pumpkin patch far from home, that I understood the dreams of my own home-grown jack o’lantern were squashed.

Seeing this pumpkin growing squashed my delusions that I’d have a homegrown jack o’lantern.

Slugging it Out in the Garden

From a distance, gardens look peaceful and serene, but under those petals and leaves a war is being waged. Every year there is one pestilence or another that plagues me and my flowers. Some years it is Japanese beetles. Other years it has been critters like rabbits, moles and groundhogs. One year it was even a fungus called shot hole disease. (Yes, that’s a real thing and yes, it really looks like someone shot holes through the leaves of the shrub.) This year, thanks to an exceptionally rainy June, my adversaries were slugs.

These muculent mollusks have the body of a snail without the charm of a shell.  I know these gooey creatures are lurking in the mulch, slowly gliding along their slime towards their next victims; my plants. They leave trails that glisten in the early morning summer sunshine like neon arrows directing me to the plants they’ve been feasting on. In the past, the slugs have always stayed horizontal, oozing their way over the ground to attack the hostas. This year’s crop of slugs was exceptionally athletic. They scaled up the sides of my flower pots and molested those plants.

slime trails glistening in the early morning summer sun

slime trails glistening in the early morning summer sun

In the past, I’ve tried different methods to rid my garden of this slimy nuisance. First, I used crushed eggshells to make a moat around vulnerable plants. The slugs won’t cross over that line in the dirt. I’m not sure why that is, but I like to imagine the crushed eggshells feel like broken glass under the slug. This method worked, but I have a very large garden. In order to mount an effective defense, I had to eat a lot of eggs. In the end, I couldn’t risk the increase in my cholesterol levels caused by eating enough eggs to keep a constant supply of shells in the garden.

After my failed attempt with the eggshells, I did some research and discovered that slugs have a drinking problem. I placed saucers of beer around the garden. The slimy lushes were lured over and drank themselves to death.  While this was a very effective method of killing the slugs, the carcass removal process left a lot to be desired. There was a seemingly unending supply of alcoholic slugs and every morning I would find their bloated bodies floating in stale beer. My beautiful garden smelled like a frat house. I’ve since learned that caffeine will also kill slugs. Maybe after a night of drinking from the beer traps, they are hung-over and overdose on caffeine.

I began to investigate more hands-off ways to kills slugs. One website suggested getting a duck that could waddle through the garden happily consuming this gelatinous delicacy. While I certainly had plenty of slugs to keep a duck well fed, this solution seemed fraught with potential problems. For instance, what do I do with the duck in the winter? I assume our cats wouldn’t enjoy having the duck as a roommate. With only one bathtub in the house, fights over who would get to swim and who would get to shower would be unavoidable. Renting a duck for the summer seemed like a reasonable alternative, but duck rental companies are hard to come by.

This year was different though. The slug population had exploded and they were feasting on anything with leaves. As tempting and cute as the duck option was, it was time to get serious about the slug problem. I was furious at the destruction left in their slimy wake. The plants looked terrible and they were slowly dying. I had to ramp up my slug killing efforts. The gardening gloves were off.

Salt works exceptionally well and, I know this sounds mean, but it is a satisfying way to kill the slugs. The problem is that this method is labor intensive. Each morning I had to go on a slug hunt. Bent in half, I wandered through the garden looking for them then salted their bodies like they were fries at Burger King. They began to dissolve immediately and I couldn’t help but smile at the poetic justice knowing that their melting bodies would provide nutrients to the soil for the very plants they were trying to destroy.

This slug didn't live long after this photo was taken.

This slug didn’t live long after this photo was taken.

I have since learned that while salting the slugs may meet my need for vengeance, it isn’t good for the soil. The proper technique to dispose of slugs is to pick them up with chopsticks and drop them into a bucket of salt water. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to pick up slippery slugs with chopsticks. Maybe I’ll spend some time during the winter ordering Chinese take-out to perfect my chopstick technique so that I am ready for next summer. If that doesn’t work, I can always grab a fondue fork.

With a regular morning routine of slug maintenance and a whole lot of salt, I managed to keep them out of my potted plants. Unfortunately, I lost the battle over the hostas which ended the summer looking like Swiss cheese. On a late summer afternoon I was sitting in our garden lamenting the state of my hostas when I got an e-mail from Oregano that helped me put things back into perspective.

The e-mail he sent had a link to a story about a big snail problem in south Florida. I wasn’t sure if the problem was big or the snails were big. Apparently, it is both. Portions of the state have been invaded by giant African land snails. These snails can grow to be 8 inches long and 4 inches in diameter. If you’re not a numbers person, make a fist. That’s about the size of these snails when they are full grown.

Despite how slowly snails move, they reproduce quickly. A single snail can lay 1200 eggs a year. That’s a lot of slime! An army of giant snails is very destructive. They eat 500 different types of plants and host a parasite that is harmful to humans, but that’s not the most disturbing fact; these snails eat the stucco walls of homes to fortify their enormous shells.

Using chopsticks to pluck these supersized snails from the garden isn’t an option, so whatever government department is in charge of removing home-wrecking mollusks, has enlisted the help of snail sniffing dogs. These dogs wander through prime snail real estate and point them out to their human counterparts. With the dogs’ help, south Florida is making a dent in the snails’ slow slide towards dominance.

Mom always said if everyone put all their problems in the middle of the room, you’d gladly take yours back. She was right. My little slugs don’t seem nearly as bad when compared to a 2 pound snail that literally eats me out of house and home.  I’ll just get myself a bigger salt shaker next summer.

A Growing Concern

Fall is always a bittersweet time of year for me. The crisp mornings, warm afternoons and beautiful foliage are a welcome change from the heat and humidity of summer. Those cooler days come at a price; they signal the end of the gardening season. Thanks to deer fencing, I now have a very large flower garden. So large, in fact, that I have run out of room to grow anymore flowers horizontally. This year, given my lack of horizontal dirt, I decided to garden vertically.

An idea that seems creative in the warmth of the May sun can become a problem on a frosty October morning. One afternoon this past May, I was feeling particularly patriotic in the garden center. I bought 3 varieties of morning glories: red, white and blue and decided to train the vines to grow up a 7 foot stake. I had visions of beautiful red, white and blue flowers bursting open by the Fourth of July. By the end of June, the vines had surpassed the end of the stake, stretched over and began winding themselves around the downspout from the rain gutters. Oregano and I thought this was an intriguing way to disguise the downspout so we left the vines alone and let nature take its course.

By August we had numerous beautiful flowers, though we never seemed to have the red, white and blue flowers at the same time. We also had a vine that had traveled up to the second floor of our house. I began to foresee a growing problem. How would we remove the vines when the time came at the end of the season? I posed this question to Oregano who told me we’d worry about it in the fall.

morning glory looking glorious

In September life got busier and I wasn’t able to spend as much time in that section of our garden. The vines grew unchecked. On an October afternoon, I was standing in our side yard having a conversation with my neighbor. Her back was to my house and as I was looking at her while she spoke when I noticed something strange. My eyes widened and my mouth dropped open. The morning glories had wound their way around the downspout all the way to the roof and attached themselves to the nearby oak tree. My neighbor turned around to see what had caused me to have such a reaction. Then her mouth dropped open. “Wow! That looks very pretty, but how are you going to get that down?” she asked.

“Good question. I never thought it would grow that high. It looks amazing, but I don’t know how we’re going to be able to untangle all those vines so high up.”

It was like the vine had come from magic beans…

When Oregano came home from work I took him to the garden to show him the stalk of vines so large it seemed to have sprung from magic beans. I expressed my concern about removing the vines when we don’t have a ladder that reaches that height. We discussed our options. Should we rip the vines down now while they are still blooming and the vines are strong? Do we wait until the first frost and then rip it down hoping the vines are still strong enough to be pulled? Oregano’s theory was to just let it die and eventually fall to the ground.

Mother Nature made the decision for us. That night we had a frost that killed the morning glories. We woke up to find a 30 foot high twisted vine with wilting leaves hanging from it. Oregano saw what had become of our experiment and said, “Well, we can’t leave that there until it dies. It looks terrible.”

We discussed our plan of attack, surveyed the garage for the necessary equipment for the task and hoped for the best. Armed with a 5 foot ladder and a tree branch lopper, the time had come to deal with the results of our experiment.

We started off strong.

We started off strong and were able to yank and remove long sections of vine. Oregano stood on the ladder wrapping the lopper around any available vine while I stood back in the grass calling out the correct direction to pull to dislodge it. Everything was going so well until we go to the bracket holding a curved piece of downspout. We had hit a snag. Oregano got off the ladder and we stood in the dewy grass surveying our options.

Twirling the vine like spaghetti seemed to be an effective technique for those stubborn, hard to reach pieces.

It seemed our best choice would be to twist the end of the lopper around a section of vine and twirl it like a strand of spaghetti. This was a tedious endeavor, but eventually our efforts were rewarded with a downspout free of vines and two adults with no injuries; more than that we could not have hoped for.

As we were scooping up the long tendrils of vine that were strewn around the yard, I turned to Oregano, “So, now that we’ve perfected the removal technique, should we try that again next year? It did look really amazing.”

“Maybe next year we should just grow it along the top of the fence,” he said untangling a section of vine from around his ankles.

Victory was ours that day!

Jack O’Lantern Seeks Jill O’Lantern

** Long-time readers have requested that I post this essay I wrote last summer.**

 

Who doesn’t love selecting that perfectly shaped, deep orange Halloween pumpkin? No other fruit or vegetable evokes such thoughts of autumn’s colorful leaves and cooler days. Since picking a pumpkin is fun, I thought growing my own pumpkin would be even more fun. I have friends who were surprised to see pumpkins emerge in their yards on the site of the remains of last year’s squirrel ravaged jack o’ lanterns.  How difficult could it be to purposefully plant pumpkin seeds and nurture them into would be jack o’ lanterns?  

In past years, I’ve attempted this feat with marginal success. I’ve planted seeds and coaxed them into sprouts only to be defeated by assorted mammals, insects, drought and unintended neglect. Vowing this year would be different, I sowed my seeds outdoors and soon sprouts sprouted, leaves unfurled and vines began trailing. Optimism for a home-grown pumpkin was at an all time high. Each day I watered my little pumpkin patch occasionally indulging the fledglings with fertilizer. When the first pumpkin blossoms formed, then bloomed, my husband and I were euphoric. We’d never had blooms before. Surely little round pumpkins couldn’t be far behind.

It’s August now and the euphoria at seeing pumpkin blossoms has faded to concern for the well being of my pumpkins to be. There is nothing that even remotely resembles a baby pumpkin growing in my pumpkin patch. No round bundle of joy to nurture and rotate so it doesn’t grow to be lopsided. How will I ever have a pumpkin by Halloween? I did what any expectant gardener would do; I consulted the internet where thirty minutes of research yielded quite a lesson in pumpkin procreation.

Pumpkin blossoms are only open for one day before they shrivel and die. Bees are the primary pollen distribution network, so if the bees aren’t in the mood or aren’t in the neighborhood, the pumpkins miss their window of opportunity to leave their mark on the world and die as virgins. There seems to be a lot that needs to happen in a short period of time to create that little miracle of life known as a pumpkin. Most of the gardening websites suggested human intervention in the pollination process to improve pumpkin production. To be honest, that’s a little more involved than I was planning on getting with my pumpkins, but I really want little orange pumpkin babies so I’m willing to resort to artificial insemination. After reading up on the various methods of pumpkin matchmaking I was ready to help my shy pumpkin flowers do the deed. One website even jokingly suggested setting the mood with a little Marvin Gaye or Barry White.

 As is important in most baby-making processes, a male and female are necessary. It is crucial for me to tell the difference between male and female pumpkin flowers and after searching Google images, I confidently returned to the pumpkin patch to get personal with my pumpkins. Since it was late in the day, blossom shrinkage had already occurred and I was forced to pull the petals apart to peek at my pumpkins’ private parts. This seemed akin to pulling down their pants and I found myself apologizing to the pumpkins for this invasion of their privacy.

 All too quickly it became obvious why I didn’t have any pumpkin babies budding on the vines. I had a homosexual pumpkin patch! There wasn’t a single female pumpkin blossom in the entire patch. My dreams of a home-grown jack o’ lantern were withering and dying faster than a day old pumpkin blossom. Trying to stem my disappointment, I stripped off my gardening gloves and consulted websites where I learned that this was a common issue. Apparently the male flowers are first to arrive on the scene to attract the pollinators to the area after which the female flowers should begin to grow. Mother Nature, being a wise woman, doesn’t want to waste her females’ precious six hours of fertility waiting to get laid if there’s no one around to get the job done.

Each morning now I trek to the pumpkin patch to peek at the newly opened flowers hoping a female has decided to crash my all male pumpkin party. Some may consider this the behavior of a pumpkinphile. While I do find my new fixation on the sexual orientation of my pumpkin blossoms a bit unusual, I prefer not to think of myself as a pumpkinphile. I am not doing anything criminal nor do I have any intent on harming the pumpkins. I am not getting some sick satisfaction from this – well at least I won’t until I see a baby pumpkin growing. Since I am in this for the offspring and not the sex, I would prefer to classify myself as a pumpkin fertility facilitator. I find myself in a situation with which The Peanuts character Linus would be very familiar; I am waiting for The Great Pumpkin to arrive. When that female pumpkin blossom does finally rise from my pumpkin patch she’s going to have her pick of guys and I will be at the ready to quickly pollinate her before she withers away.

Linus and I both waited, to no avail, for the Great Pumpkin to arrive.

Epilogue

Several weeks after I wrote that essay I visited the Green Animals Topiary Garden near Newport, Rhode Island. While walking through the various gardens that day I recognized male and female pumpkin blossoms and vines. I was curious to see how this professional pumpkin patch was progressing. As I approached, I saw that there were small, green pumpkins maturing on the vines. It was at that moment, on a rainy day, in a pumpkin patch far from home, that I understood the dreams of my own home-grown jack o’lantern were squashed.

My pumpkin vine never produced a single female blossom so this baby pumpkin, growing at Green Animals Topiary Garden, was as close as I got to a home-grown jack o'lantern.

Doesn’t this give you a whole new appreciation for your Halloween pumpkin?

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