The great pumpkin plot

At the end of the last school year, among the papers, pencils, and projects evacuated from my 9-year-old son's desk, was a small, potted pumpkin plant. Even as seedlings, pumpkins look robust, bursting with potential. Anton's little specimen appeared positively strait- jacketed in its little plastic pot. He suggested that we immediately plant it in our garden.

I had never grown a pumpkin before. On a warm sunny day we went down to our small garden, lifted the seedling out of its pot, and nestled it among the tomatoes, herbs, and pole beans. Then we went out of town for a week. Anton was in good spirits, thanks to the nice little addition he had made to the family garden.

Did I say "little"? When we returned, the vine was thick and spreading, and flower buds were already appearing. I directed Anton to weed around it, so the pumpkin would not be crowded out.

I needn't have worried. Day by day the thing grew and widened and spread, thanks to ample rain and long, hot days. It was making a beeline straight for the tomatoes. I decided to intercede, but when I grabbed hold of it, I got a handful of spines, which studded the length of the vine. Was this thing plant or animal?

Having learned my lesson, I took a broom handle, lifted the leading end of the vine, and reoriented it so it would head in another direction. Anton watched me with a doubtful expression. "It's big, isn't it, Dad?" he said.

A few days later the vine was more magnificent (if that's the right word) than ever. Its leaves were the size of elephants' ears, and it had sprouted trumpet-shaped blossoms as big as hats. It had redirected itself, too, already embracing the beans and climbing up the poles. I gave it the broom handle treatment once again, bringing it back down to earth and sending the leading tendril out of the now-crowded garden and down the riverbank.

Throughout the summer and into the fall the pumpkin vine grew, pushing its way among weeds and shrubs, as if it were snuffling around out of sheer curiosity. But something troubling was happening: It was not bearing any fruits. At first, the blossoms were large and healthy, and then they'd shrivel up and fall off.

I mentioned this dilemma to my barber. Don is a great gardener, his wisdom born of experience. He recognized my problem immediately. "How many plants do you have?" he asked.

"My gosh," I said. "Isn't one enough?"

"Well, no," said Don. "If you have one, it's either a boy or a girl. Did you look at the flowers?"

How could I miss them? But no, I hadn't taken a really close look. I went home and headed straight for the pumpkin vine. I saw the pistil - the female part - but no pollen-yielding stamens. This vine would never produce a pumpkin.

When Anton returned home from school he went out to inspect the apple - or rather, pumpkin - of his eye. He came into the house with a long face. "I don't understand it," he said. "Where are all my pumpkins?"

I gave him a hug and girded myself to explain the male and female aspects of pumpkin biology. I told Anton that I should have checked the flowers and then gotten a plant of the opposite sex. "Do you understand?" I asked him.

"I don't get it," he said. "Can't another pumpkin send over some of its pollen? I just want one pumpkin. Just one."

I was moved by my son's persistent hope for a solution. At this late date, even if I could get some pumpkin pollen, the flowers would never bear fruit before the Maine weather clobbered them with its first frost.

But maybe there was another way.

The next day, while Anton was in school, I sought out a pumpkin stand. I bought one about the size of a soccer ball and hurried home with it. Then, working carefully, I nestled the orange globe into position. Then I covered up my work with a couple of those big leaves.

When Anton got off the school bus I followed him down to the garden. When he discovered the pumpkin, he was beside himself. After a cursory examination, he grabbed it. "Gee," he said. "It came right off."

"They don't make pumpkins like they used to," I told him.

No truer words were ever spoken.

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