Invasion of the plant that ate my compost pile

I first noticed the mystery plant when I was dumping a bucket of vegetable peelings in the compost pile in mid-June. A small stalk with three leaves poked out from between cracked eggshells. I ignored it.

Our compost pile is just that, a pile. There are no fancy wooden bins or barrels with a crank to circulate the brown gold. We just dump our leaves, grass clippings, chicken manure, and food scraps in a pile near the garden. It isn't pretty, but it decomposes nicely.

At the end of June the little weed once again caught my attention. Now two sturdy branches jutted up amid some rotting apple cores, and a small vine tendril stretched longingly toward a heap of chicken manure.

I scratched my head trying to determine the species of this mystery plant. That spring I had tossed some old seeds into the compost, but I was positive they were all flower seeds. This plant didn't resemble any flower that I had ever seen.

I was stumped.

Dumping the kitchen compost bucket is a job for my kids. So weeks went by, and I forgot about the garden invader.

Then, one day, my son Ben came in the house carrying the empty bucket. "Mom," he told me, "there is something taking over the compost pile. It's huge, like something out of a scary movie."

The entire compost pile was hidden under a cloak of bright green leaves punctuated with large yellow blossoms. My family doesn't eat squash, so I don't grow it and have little familiarity with that branch of the cucurbita family. But this plant was definitely of that ilk.

I rooted around the base of the stalks looking for fruit, but there was nothing, only a maze of vines and bright blossoms. It was getting late in the summer and the weather had been unseasonably cold and wet. I doubted those blossoms would mature enough to reveal the identity of their mother plant.

Then one morning I walked out to my garden and an amazing sight stopped me in my tracks. It was a pure Jack-and-the-Beanstalk moment. Seemingly overnight, the plant had crept far beyond the compost pile. It now stretched across several feet of lawn, and the vines climbed up my raspberry canes in a choking embrace.

My husband joined me. Mirrored in his expression I saw the same sense of astonishment I felt. But was that the ticklish finger of fear running down my spine? My son was right. This plant did look like something out of a horror film. Scenes of the alien pods in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" flitted through my mind.

"It's taking over the yard," Jon said. "I'd mow it down, but it's bearing fruit."

Sure enough, little yellow balls were growing on a couple of the stalks.

"Summer squash, do you think?" I asked Jon.

He shrugged, as ignorant as I about this particular species. "Beats me, but we'll have to act if it gets much bigger. It'll reach the house soon." Jon hefted the weed whacker threateningly.

I kept an eye on the alien plant throughout August. I checked the fruit once, but the yellow spheres remained tennis-ball size and the color was like a slightly unripe banana. I felt sure the fruit, whatever it was, would be some inedible, distorted hybrid. So I left the plant alone, curious to see how large it would grow. While its possession of our lawn was a bit alarming, I admit to feeling a certain pride at the fecundity of my compost pile when the plant reached the edge of our apple orchard.

Then school started, and my time in the garden diminished. As weeks passed, store displays of notebooks and pencils gave way to rubber masks and fake jack-o'-lanterns.

"Can we carve lots of pumpkins this year?" asked Ben.

"Sure," I replied. "Why don't we go to that pumpkin patch we went to last year and pick out some really big ones?"

"We don't need to," said Ben. "We have a bunch of gigantic ones, except one of them has kind of an indented head because of the apple tree."

I looked up and gave my son my full attention.

"What are you talking about?"

"Our pumpkin patch, Mom!" he said in surprise. "The one in the compost pile."

There they were, hidden beneath the netting of bright green leaves. The little yellow balls were now eight huge pumpkins, including one that was trying to wrap itself around the trunk of an apple tree.

I'm quite sure I never threw away any pumpkin seeds last spring. How this pumpkin sprouted remains a mystery. But the trick I've been gardening around all summer has turned into the perfect Halloween treat. (That is, as long as nothing science-fictiony occurs when I take the carving knife to the first pumpkin.)

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