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June 27, 2022

Pumpkin Heaven

By Anna Sykora

Who tries to raise pumpkins in a row house? Pumpkins, heavy feeders, grow like monsters; they need ample space and steady care. On impulse I bought a packet of seeds for a smallish variety that climbs: rondini.

Six seeds started in April came up on the windowsill while snow whited out the outside world. To protect them from the harsh winds here in northern Germany, I set the seedlings deep in plastic buckets, and arranged them in a corner, in partial shade, while we left home in May for 12 days. All of them tripled in size.

Next stop: six mail sacks with holes in the bottom. Transplanting my plants, I tore some roots off. Lesson learned: skip the buckets next time.

My backyard neighbor, grim Herr S -- who keeps an eye on our row as if paid to do so -- asked what I was up to, wiring trellises to the wooden pergola above my patio.

"I love pumpkins," I told him in New Yawk German (the locals could cut my accent with a spoon). "They're round and colorful, and taste great if you don't stint on the spices."

"Meine liebe Frau, Sie können doch keine Kürbisse in einem Reihenhaus ..."

"Tell that to the pumpkins," I said. "Look at them, how they're growing like crazy."

Our patio -- already crammed with tomatoes, beans and potatoes -- only had room for four more sacks. Number 5 I lugged upstairs to a terrace, where I hung plastic hooks over the front wall. To these I tied jute ropes running down to the trellis I stuck into the mail sack. Would this hillbilly solution work? This vine would have to climb a wall surfaced with shingles of black Eternit. That's a mix of cement and asbestos, and in direct sunlight it gets hot.

Number 6 I set up beside the garden shed, which is choked by ivy that grows to the roof and forms a mound on it two feet high. Now how to keep the ivy from swallowing my pumpkins? I bought a net of the kind to keep birds from pilfering fruit trees, and ran it up the side of our shed and over the ivy hill.

"Wozu das Netz?" old Herr S demanded, glaring at it.

"It's like a hair net for the ivy."

Shaking his head, he marched off to inform the neighborhood I had lost my mind. (What can you expect from an American? She wants to grow pumpkins in a row house ... )

All six vines, bushy and green, now leaned against their trellises. The moment of truth had arrived: would they climb? To survive in our tiny garden, they had to. Where were their hands?

Out they shot thin, triple whips like lassos, caught themselves holds and tightened on the trellises. Drying, these whips looked like curly wire on an old-fashioned telephone handset.

How do they know where to go? I wondered. How do they feel around for support?

Daily all six vines fanned on upwards, rhythmically putting out 5-pointed leaves and knots of conical flower buds, carefully building themselves on the supports. I rushed to help with a spool of wire, weaving fresh growth into the trellises so storm winds couldn't break down the vines.

Every day in June they scouted higher, sending out shoots now left and right. Working with bamboo poles on the pergola, I wove them into, around and through an old wisteria vine. The younger vines cooperated, growing where I wanted most of the time. They seemed good-natured, not pushy or finicky, as I fed them with a special fertilizer for tomatoes, and with guano and banana peels, and many fresh helpings of compost too.

Then the first, few green pumpkins formed -- and fell off. What was I doing wrong? The vines themselves looked lush and healthy, each about 8 feet long. The ones on the patio reached to the pergola's horizontal bars, the one on the shed to the hump of ivy, and the one upstairs filled the Eternit wall.

Here it was mid-June, though, and I saw no bees, no wasps, no butterflies. I didn't even notice any flies. We live only three blocks from a small woods, but no pollinators flocked to our pumpkins.

Long, harsh and dark, even by north German standards, this winter had damaged all our insects, the German Federation of Apiaries reported in the internet. There I soon found clips, from around the world, of growers doing pollination by themselves. If little kids in Georgia could service pumpkins the size of Cinderella's coach, I could try to save my rondini.

A baby first appears as a round, green swelling underneath the female blossom. I learned to choose the most powdery males, cut them up and dab pollen into the females. Leaving the male part on, like a cap, you can tell which flowers you have dusted.

When, overnight, sections of the vines turned darker, deep green, almost black, I panicked: was I choking them to death, wiring them into the trellises?

No, this was the chemistry of pollination. Newly formed rondini stayed on the vines, visibly swelling, with thickening stems. The leaves, full-size now and larger than my husband's hands, looked like staircases of lily pads.

On an internet tip, we ate the surplus male blooms raw, or sautéed in oil and soy sauce. They taste like apples or apricots, and the vines produced dozens every week.

Meanwhile, the shed's vine marched right up the net path over the ivy hill, and down again while Herr S tracked it from his bathroom window with binoculars.

On the six vines I counted almost 30 rondini the size of oranges. And then one sunny day in July I saw bees and wasps, and flies and butterflies, all of them rambling around the garden and plundering the yellow pumpkin flowers.

I felt gratified, happy even, doing my part to feed these useful creatures. I learned pollination etiquette: whoever gets in first should finish first.

Our local bees -- who sport thick, black fur and graceful, jointed antennae -- dive right into the rondini blossoms and vacuum up the nectar and pollen, spending almost a minute in each bloom. Then they mark each one with a scent so others of their tribe waste no time in scavenging it.

One morning I am teetering up a ladder, working on a big, fat, female flower, and just as I cap her, a bee shows up, buzzing irritably. Jawohl, I mutter, and pull the cap off. The bee lunges in and tramples around, sucking up every grain of pollen, every bead of nectar, her little round bottom bouncing with the effort--and when she finally buzzes away, the bloom looks bare as a dog-polished bone.

These are supposed to be pollinators? I repeat my dusting and climb down.

Next problem: weeks of monsoon rain give way to a puzzling, Saharan dryness. Five times a day I trot around the garden, trying to keep all our food plants moist.

Some pumpkin leaves turn brown and spotty, some crumble into powder at my touch. The vine upstairs, on the Eternit, I cover with old sheets pinned together from noon until about 6 PM, and underneath the leaves stay fresh and green...

Until, that is, I forget the sheets -- and a quarter of the leaves scorch to death. Later, feeling terrible, I snip them off carefully and compost them. I can't stand this harsh heat either; it's too hot in the house to keep a shirt on. (Germans have not needed air-conditioning, but now their climate is heating up).

All the pumpkin leaves look like the skin of old folks: spotty and faded, brittle and thin. Still the 32 rondini keep on swelling, now the size of Grade B grapefruits.

"How big do they get?" my husband asks me.

"I don't know. Our sacks are too small. Next year we should the sacks used for debris here on construction sites."

Next problem: powdery mildew; a thick, gray mold that forms on the leaves, curling them up as the nights grow cooler. (Trees in Hanover start to drop their leaves already in early August). A gardening site in Australia suggests spraying the mold with a milk solution (1 part milk to 10 parts water). Twice a week? I need to spray twice a day, which partly dissolves the mold, uncurling the leaves. When they lift themselves to the sun once again I feel relieved.

Meanwhile, our most successful vine has flourished in the least likely place: crawling over the ivy on the shed. This vine has hatched twelve perfect rondini, almost half the total crop.

Maybe I know what I am doing? Who cares, when these nimble vines do. No longer forming female flowers, they work on perfecting the pumpkins they have made.

And although we have not yet tasted any, whether they are juicy and sweet as honey, or hard as a Prussian soldier's boot, I feel happy, in pumpkin heaven; and like these rondini, I have learned where to stop ...

But we'll be back in the next growing season, my rondini and me.

Article © Anna Sykora. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-10-07
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