Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Growing Howard the Pumpkin

I grew up on asphalt just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. I was such an urban kid that I did not learn until I was 17 years of age that much of the plant foods we eat are actually grown from seed. For those of you that grew up on a farm, that's probably a pretty astonishing fact, but the reality is that many urban kids don't have a connection to agriculture and have little understanding about where real food comes from - that is, food that doesn't come out of a package.

It wasn't an amazing epiphany that resulted in my advanced educated state. Rather, as a freshman at the University of Maine, some of my older co-workers gave me a handful of seeds to plant in a small garden plot outside of a place we were staying during my summer as a harbor seal researcher. I thought it was one of their usual tricks - let's play another one on the freshman. To this day, over 30 years later, I remember looking at the seeds and laughing and saying, "Yeah sure, I'm going to put these in the ground, and we're going to eat vegetables the rest of the summer." I also remember the looks on their faces when they realized I actually thought it was a prank. It was a partial look of "We have a LOT of work to do with this kid," and an incredulous, "How can this be?"

I played along with the charade, but the seed quickly germinated, and I've been hooked on gardening ever since. I love sticking seeds in good soil more than most people enjoy the finer things in life. I'm fascinated by soil tilth - that incredible formula for productive, healthy soil that consists of half soil and one quarter air and water. Any farmer that has too much or too little of any of these components usually has problems with crop production.

What does any of this have to do with invasive species? Lots.

If we want our kids to value healthy ecosystems and the native fish and wildlife that live there, they must understand, be aware of, and appreciate how things grow and where food comes from. They need to be excited about what healthy soil can produce so they know what can be lost as invasive species outcompete and displace native plants.

So I'm on a mission this summer to get the neighborhood kids excited about gardening. To do that, we're not only growing our annual large vegetable garden - we're growing a pumpkin. But this is no ordinary pumpkin - this is Howard, the Giant Pumpkin. Since April, I've been taking care of Howard as though he were my own offspring. He soaked in seaweed water for 4 hours before I planted him in 85 degree potting soil (giant pumpkins will not germinate in soil less than 85 degrees - I know that because I tried to germinate him at 75, 80 and 83 degrees, with no success - just like the books said). I hardened him outdoors for five days longer than recommended because I had a sneaky suspicion Oregon might experience the kind of late cold, wet spring we now have. And last weekend, my husband and I constructed a little greenhouse over him to shelter him from the cold, wet rains and warm the soil around his happy roots.

There are many people that grow giant pumpkins in the 1,600 pound category. I don't know if Howard will achieve that weight because we're growing him organically, without any chemical additions to the soil. He's surrounded by flowers that will help repel insect pests (thanks to the neighbor kids that enthusiastically planted them). He's basically livin' the dream.

And I'm living mine, too - to get people fired up about gardening and developing a relationship with the soil and the outdoors that will ultimately translate into people leading sustainable lifestyles and caring about the stewardship of our natural resources.

If you want to track Howard the Pumpkin during the summer, you can follow him on Facebook - he has his own Facebook page, since he's a public figure in our neighborhood. His website is

And to my college mentors? Thanks - for a lifetime of enjoyment. And Howard thanks you as well.

1 comment:

  1. Good luck, Howard, maybe I'll see you at the State Fair! A connection worth noting between gardening and invasive species is that most of the plants we grow in our gardens are not native species. Non-native does not equal invasive. Many exotic plants are well behaved, beneficial, and beautiful. Our lives, gardens, and diets would be dull without them. DJH