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  (Curtis Lantinga)


(Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

The curse of the Great Pumpkin Add to ...

Living in the country – even just on weekends – changes your life in ways you never expected. City people develop strange new passions. They get cows, or take up beekeeping or grow purple heirloom tomatoes. If male, they often start collecting tractors, bush hogs and other equipment that requires combustion engines. The more engines the better. They spend hours inspecting other people’s equipment to see if it is bigger and better than theirs, and contemplating the attachments they could get. They love riding around on it. They don’t really need any of this stuff, but they invent many things to do that will justify owning it. Then they have to build a giant drive shed to put it all in.

Thankfully, my husband isn’t an equipment freak. He leans toward quieter pursuits, some of which are more successful than others. His honey is in great demand. His mead, not so much. (If you want some, we have plenty.) He used to make cider until it began exploding in the basement.

Our pond, which is aerated by a tiny windmill, is a work of genius. Our meadow, not so much. He must have sunk 10,000 plants into it. Most of them have expired, because our soil is composed of impenetrable clay. But my husband’s strongest trait is his goat-like persistence. Years of failure have not deterred him from believing it will work next time.

Which brings me to the Great Pumpkin project.

My husband has never been particularly interested in vegetables. But one day, he decided to grow a giant pumpkin. Don’t ask me why. These things happen in the country. You discover entirely new hopes and dreams and desires, and soon your life is changed forever. He researched pumpkins on the Internet and ordered several cubic yards of dirt and a big pile of manure. Then he sent away for a pack of giant pumpkin seeds.

You’d think that growing pumpkins would be no big deal. People do it all the time. Every October, you can buy as many pumpkins as you want for a few bucks apiece. My sister grew a 78-pound pumpkin in the compost heap when she was 10.

But it was a big deal. The first season yielded exactly one pumpkin, of merely average size. In other words, we had grown a $200 squash. We couldn’t bear to carve it. We just set it on the table and admired it, until it rotted.

The next season, my husband consulted the farmer across the road for advice on improving his yield. “You have to fertilize them by hand,” he explained. To do this, you must go out in the early morning, find a male flower, and grind it gently into a female flower. Then you wait a few weeks, select the best specimen on each vine, and ruthlessly abort the rest. This work isn’t for the squeamish.

Meantime, I took up a mission of my own. My mission was to learn to not fall off a horse. I’ve done a lot of riding in the country but I’ve never taken lessons, and obviously my technique is flawed. My husband wanted me to quit because he was tired of taking me to the hospital. Eventually, we compromised on riding lessons. I found a very good instructor who let me know, in the kindest possible way, that I had no idea what I was doing and it was all wrong anyway, and that we would have to start from the beginning. Country living offers many lessons in humility.

Perversely, the pumpkin project yielded results that were in inverse proportion to my husband’s growing expertise. One year, all we had were fetal pumpkins, and the next year we had none. This year, my husband enlisted outside help. He got a guy named Al, who knows quite a bit about plants, to start the seedlings early in his basement. He got his friend Steve to help prepare the ground, and he got our friend Jane to come over and water while we were away. By July, our pumpkin vines were 12 feet long, and we had half a dozen baby pumpkins that were getting bigger by the week. They were the size of apples, then melons, then basketballs. My husband built mesh pup-tents to shade them from the sun, and nestled them on plywood so their bottoms wouldn’t get too wet. When he nicked the biggest pumpkin by mistake, he patched it up with duct tape.

Pumpkinship, I’ve leaned, is hard. But horsemanship is harder. There’s a lot more to it, starting with the obvious fact that horses move around. So I wasn’t that discouraged that my husband’s project was going better than mine. To get the horse to do what you want, explained my instructor, “you have to show the horse that you’re a better horse.” Yet after many, many lessons, it’s clear to me that I’m not fooling the horse for a minute. He’s the better horse, and we both know it.

Then, all of a sudden, bad things started happening in the pumpkin patch. One pumpkin split into pieces. Others broke out in ugly patches of black and white mould. One day, I came home from the riding ring stable and discovered that our second-biggest pumpkin was covered in clumps of a particularly hideous type of insect. I sprayed them dead but it was too late. By the time my husband arrived from the city, our entire crop had succumbed to various forms of pumpkin plague.

“Oh well, there’s always next year,” I said philosophically. “It’s good to aspire to things that are really, really hard. We go through life thinking we’re so smart. We need experiences like this to remind us that we’re not.”

My husband only scowled. It’s bad enough to be outsmarted by a horse. But it’s even worse to be bested by a vegetable.

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