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Sunday, October 28, 2007

BACKYARD GIANTS

The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever

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By Susan Warren

Bloomsbury. 245 pp. $24.95

When Canadian gardener William Warnock unveiled a 365-pound pumpkin at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, he ushered in a new era of obsessive gardening. Add to the ranks of rose fanciers and rare orchid collectors a third wacky subculture: giant pumpkin growers.

These guys joke about "pumpkin sex," chat online about recipes for "compost tea" and tenderly tuck their fruit in at night under protective blankets. They want one thing: to grow the next world-record breaking pumpkin.

The lengths to which these men (and a few women) will go are described in excruciating detail in Susan Warren's book, Backyard Giants, in which she follows a cadre of Rhode Island growers for a year. By spending time with these fanatics, in particular Ron and Dick Wallace, the high pooh-bahs of the giant pumpkin world, she becomes as obsessed with the quest as they are.

The Wallaces, son and father, have been repeatedly denied a first-place winner due to the vagaries of weather and luck. After losing two 1,300-pounders just before the weigh-off in 2005, the men were determined to grow a champion in 2006 and maybe even break the 1,500-pound barrier to reach true Great Pumpkin status.

Key to their efforts is successful pollination. The author eloquently describes Ron's anxious work: "With a bouquet of male flowers in one hand, he advanced slowly down a slippery-wet plank toward his target. He laid out his board and kneeled down over the female, slipping the Ziplock bag off the bloom like a bridegroom lifting a veil." But as in marriage, nothing is certain in the garden: Despite attention to seed genetics, soil conditions, water and temperature, the plants can still fail. Even if the fruits approach competition size -- sometimes growing 30 or 40 pounds a day -- they can be quickly undone by disease or varmints. In the end, growers may have nothing to show but the seeds they scrape from a collapsed pumpkin to plant another year.

The question persists: Why would people devote all their energy and time to such an arcane hobby? Ultimately, the answer doesn't require 15 chapters. The author quotes Dick at a meeting of growers: "You've got to admit, if the average citizen walked into this room and looked around, they'd say, 'What a bunch of weirdoes these people are!' "

-- April Austin writes on gardening and the arts from Lexington, Mass.


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