It is a truth universally acknowledged that pumpkins have a nasty habit of bringing down property values and instigating public brawls. Just ask Rand Paul.
My fellow community gardeners do not grow pumpkins. They prefer a tidier world than that. Most belong to the middle class world of professionals – the kind of people who know Robert’s Rules and are prepared to deploy them. They are good people: teachers, nurses, lawyers. They get things done and they keep us civilized. But when they picture a garden plot they see perfectly spaced rows of well behaved lettuce. Tomatoes are popular but must be contained – should we say: imprisoned? – in metal cages. The most adventurous of the group flirts with growing peppers but all too often those peppers end up rotting on the plant because the gardener is not quite convinced they are actually food.
Pumpkins have a way of existing outside the zone of comfort for a lot of gardeners. A single pumpkin plant can explode with life creating a wild kingdom where a person might feel nervous about parking and leaving their car. The vine itself rejects all boundaries. Like a hyperactive child it tends to be a little too exuberant. Things get broken and there is always a bit of drama that needs sorting. Pumpkins are outlaws. As soon as night falls you just know they are going to illegally slip over the designated plot walls like the sneak thieves they are. Sensible people simply do not grow pumpkins.
But everyone loves them. Last year the local community garden hosted a pumpkin patch. If you aren’t from the American South this idea might need explaining. Basically, people drag their kids out to be photographed in front of hay bales and an artful display of pumpkins. It is the kind of affair where everyone knows they are supposed to be having fun but really they wander around smiling and hoping the happiness will kick in if they try hard enough. Sort of like Disneyland without all the plastic. The reward is a photo to send to family at Thanksgiving but meaning is largely absent. Neither the plant nor the kids have any time to really get to know each other. Both the kids and the miracle of pumpkin largess are demeaned because both are presented as mere objects.
For our pumpkin patch, someone generously spent more than a hundred dollars for a truckload of conventionally grown pumpkins. The pumpkins were probably trucked in across state lines because that year’s drought made growing pumpkins a tricky endeavour. Someone else bought some hay bales from the farm store. We found out later that those hay bales had been liberally sprinkled with Roundup. Apparently these days they all are. When the whole thing was done, we banished the children back to where they came from. Peace was restored and we debriefed. We all acknowledged the irony of an organic garden showcasing poison and waste. We agreed we could do better.
Someone suggested a living pumpkin patch: all organic, all grown on site. The kids could take organic pumpkins home for Halloween.
That was the tidy plan. The reality was more chaotic. In the spring I prepared a site and planted a single Seminole Pumpkin seed. Time passed and the pumpkin plant grew. It grew like Jack’s beanstalk. One afternoon I saw an elderly gardener grimly inspecting the results.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“Your pumpkin patch has gone cancerous.”
Cancer is unrestricted growth. But unlike deadly diseases and urban sprawl pumpkins cause no harm. They just want to be free. From the start that vine laughed with amusement at its allotted rectangle of garden space. Within a couple months it had grown more than 40 feet long in multiple directions. By midsummer it was securely squatting on all the surrounding pathways. The Bermuda grass nervously looked on. Not satisfied with invading the immediate territory, the pumpkin scrambled up and over the perimeter fence. It was a bit like watching a green tsunami in slow mo.
Taking over is one of the things pumpkins do best. It runs in the family. Pumpkins belong to a highly successful plant family that includes cucumbers, melons, zucchini and gourds. They are originally native to Central America but have spread across the world and are now grown on six continents.
Before achieving global domination, squash/pumpkin was one of the three sisters of indigenous cuisine; namely, corn, beans and squash. Sister Squash was a little bit odd and had artistic tendencies. While indigenous gardeners carefully curated and tamed Corn and Bean seed to create the best food possible most groups never bothered much with trying to control squash genetics. They would have been hard pressed to do so. Squash plants are terribly promiscuous. To keep a strain pure you have to grow it at least a mile away from any other squash plant or cross pollination will result — with completely unpredictable outcomes. So originally squash came in an infinite variety of shapes, colours and sizes and that was just the way things were. Squash was a filler: for the stomach and the land. It shaded the soil and kept it moist so more nutritious plants could thrive. All it asked for in return was a little freedom of expression.
Nature has a habit of rewarding generosity over stinginess. The squash family is so important to the ecology of Turtle Island that a bee co-evolved with it. Pumpkin flowers open briefly in the morning when these bees are active. When the day starts to get hot the flowers begin to close. The male bees curl up inside using the flowers as soft yellow blankets. In the morning the bees eat their way through the petals and go about their business. So while some might think pumpkins are out of control, they are actually gentle giants nurturing and protecting the life around them. They play well with others.
For these reasons and others, the pumpkin has become one of the crucial emblems of Samhain/Halloween: that time of year when boundaries are weak and we can imagine other possibilities. The pumpkin lights our way through the darkness of the greyface world. Rules are fine when they promote love and respect. But we must also respect the wisdom of giving some space for things to get a bit wild — a bit Dionysian. A bit messy. I don’t want poison on my hay. I can tolerate some weeds. A little spontaneity is a good thing.
The pumpkin patch tradition grew from a desire to celebrate nature’s generosity. It hints at reconnecting kids to nature. But like pumpkins I am a little bit greedy. I want more for our children.
Just as fast food is less than ideal for feeding a growing body, fast food like experiences are similarly inadequate for connecting with the world around us. Children live in a different time zone: their world is simultaneously both faster and slower than our own. I prefer giving a child the opportunity to first anticipate and then experience the joy of seeing a seed mysteriously sprout from the earth. To be shocked by the visuals of exponential growth. To see how flowers are gorgeous hangouts for all kinds of pollinators and pests. To take the time to get to know those visitors because every one of them has a fascinating story to share. At season’s end a child who helps to harvest those pumpkins may find food tastes better because of the magical ingredient of love. And one or two pumpkins must be set aside for carving because people need art as much as they need food. Time and experience feed a child’s body, heart and soul.
Time and experience teach us all how to respect and connect with the world around us. I have thoroughly enjoyed making the acquaintance of this charming plant, an experience which could not have happened without my local community garden. All season long it has been whispering to me, telling me to poke at the boundaries that keep me from joyful expression, telling me to be mindful that a little chaos doesn’t have to be feared: it is a reminder that we are all of us both vulnerable and alive.
Have you heard any pumpkin whispers this year? Do you have any pumpkin stories or pictures? Contact us here.
mitsubachi is a writer, photographer and managing editor at Anima Monday. She spends a lot of time with bees and flowers.