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Fall 2012

Urban Jungle

The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark      

October 30, 2012

A volunteer pumpkin patch

On the front steps they sat, a gleaming party of six pumpkins, brightening the eyes and grins of Halloween visitors.

But as the weeks lapsed, the pumpkins slumped and shriveled. Mold riddled their ruins. One uncarved pumpkin rolled off the steps, split open and spilled its rot into the flower bed.

The once beaming faces of passersby now greeted the dissolute display with scowls of disgust.

"I thought the postman was going to boycott our house," said Patty McDermott of Chevy Chase, who finally banished the decaying pumpkins to the side of the house, out of sight.

Winter passed.

In the spring, Patty's daughter, first-grader Riley Petersen, salvaged seeds from what was left of the old pumpkins. With parental approval and help from her brother, Grady, she planted them in the vegetable garden.

But, unbeknown to her parents, "we put them in other places, too," said Riley."

The sanctioned garden patch fared poorly, "but they grew up all over the other places," Riley said.

Successful pumpkins grow in well-drained, loamy soil with plenty of organic matter. They won't survive constant watering.

Riley's biggest crop sprang from the remains of the pumpkin that splattered the flower bed. In June, sprouting seeds sent vines, leaves and tendrils to overwhelm the front porch.

"We had a pumpkin explosion," said Patty.

But these were not ordinary orange pumpkins.

Pumpkins are native North American squashes, which hybridize easily with many other squash varieties. Non-hybrid, or heirloom, pumpkins must be grown well away from other squashes or the seeds won't yield fruits that resemble the parents.

The seeds that Riley planted apparently came from hybrid pumpkins, which looked perfectly pumpkiny on the outside but spawned unpredictable results from the seeds on the inside.

Riley's patch yielded eight pumpkins. Most were

small, smooth and beige, but one was distinctly different from the others: a dark green pumpkin — with warts.

"The kids used the pumpkins we grew to hold their own pumpkin festival/carnival in the yard," Patty said.

They were later parked on the front steps for display. And some have already begun to rot. Riley intends to use the seeds to grow pumpkins for next year.

"I am trying to 'direct' them into our vegetable garden," said Patty, "and not in my front flower bed!"

pumpkin patch