When our youngest son, Carlos, read Laura Ingalls Wilder's book "Farmer Boy," he decided to be like Almanzo Wilder and raise a giant pumpkin to enter in our local fair. Carlos perused the seed catalogs, comparing different hybrids, and finally selected a variety that had produced record-breaking pumpkins.
After the seeds arrived, he planted three of them in peat pots and examined them daily, waiting for them to sprout. The seedlings produced thumb-size leaves, and one late May afternoon, Carlos and I chose a location in our garden for his pumpkin patch.
He set out the sturdy seedlings, and his father, John, showed him how to mulch the plants with a ring of compost. The fertilizer would sift down through the soil as the root system expanded. Every day, Carlos toted his green plastic watering can to the garden and soaked the soil around the rambling plant.
When the pumpkins began to flower, Carlos cut off the blossoms from the largest plant, except for one yellow star-shaped flower that shone amid the sea of mammoth leaves. A small green globe formed, and Carlos read to me the pages describing how Almanzo fed his pumpkin with milk.
"My pumpkin needs milk," Carlos said. "Can we feed it some tonight?"
Because we keep dairy goats, milk abounds in our refrigerator. So that July evening, I poured a bowl of milk and Carlos carried it to his plant, wading through the tangle of vines and leaves. He had scooped a shallow depression in the soil where he placed the bowl. I slit the underside of the vine near the small pumpkin and inserted a piece of string that dangled into the milk. The next morning, Carlos ran to the garden and reported that the level of milk in the bowl had not changed.
"Wait," I told him. "It may take all day for the pumpkin to drink the milk."
We checked that evening, but could only detect a slight difference. In the morning, the milk was gone and the bowl tipped over.
"Raccoons," I said. "They came for the corn, but were tickled to find the milk, too."
We refilled the bowl, but after another raid, gave up. Carlos continued watering and mulching his plant, and out of the mass of leaves protruded a bulging green ball. Yellow crept over it and darkened into orange.
Carlos filled out his entry form for the fair, and on our evening strolls, we often ended up in the pumpkin patch estimating the behemoth's weight.
Finally, in early September, fair week arrived. John and I struggled to lift the monster into the back of our small station wagon. We clambered in and headed to the fairgrounds.
The people overseeing the vegetable exhibits met us at the entrance of the building that housed other folks' sunflower stalks and baskets of apples and green peppers.
"Who raised that enormous pumpkin?" one of the judges asked as he and another fellow slipped a canvas sling beneath the beast.
"I did," my son answered.
"What's your secret?" the other judge asked. He grunted as the two of them lifted the sling and hauled the giant over to where several other large pumpkins sat.
"Water and compost," Carlos said.
"Good luck," the men said as we drove off.
Fair day arrived and the sugary scent of cotton candy greeted us as we walked by the Ferris wheel, and music blared from the midway. We raced by the stalls of sheep, cows, and hogs, aiming toward the horticulture building. Carlos rushed to his pumpkin.
"Two hundred and eighty-seven pounds!" he shouted. "But only second place." A red ribbon hung from the pumpkin's thick stem, and its weight had been scratched in the rind. Next to it, another pumpkin wore the blue ribbon and boasted 295 pounds.
"You came very close," John and I consoled Carlos. "And winning second place is also an honor."
One of the judges ambled over and shook Carlos's hand. "Good work," the man said.
At the end of the fair, we reclaimed the pumpkin and placed it beside a corn shock that decorated the door to the boys' playhouse. Visitors commented on its size.
When the north wind swept the last of the golden leaves from the sassafras tree, I pondered what to do with Carlos's treasure. After all his labors, we couldn't pitch his pumpkin into the compost pile.
"Cows like pumpkins," Carlos said one morning. "We could feed my pumpkin to Leo and Tolstoy for Thanksgiving."
Carlos and John rolled the pumpkin down to the oxen paddock, opened the gate, and shoved in the orange giant. Tolstoy nudged at a small split in the rind; Leo chomped into the thick flesh – and the two of them cracked off chunks.
That evening at milking time, our contented oxen lounged in the last bits of sunshine, chewing their cud. Only a few seeds were sprinkled about on the ground. Carlos's pumpkin had been a winner once again.