Having written about arcane gardening topics myself (colchicums, anyone?), I understand the challenge of writing to an audience that is unfamiliar with the jargon and techniques of one’s subject, an audience with no emotional investment in the topic at hand. Giant pumpkins are brobdingnagian in size. Their growth rate is astonishing. But neither fact could hold my attention for long, if I didn’t care about the people involved with these giant fruiting bodies. In Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever, Susan Warren succeeded in making me care about these growers of giant pumpkins.
A Writer’s Perpsective
As a writer, I appreciate how she found the drama in this activity, and how she brought the characters to life with her choice of details and anecdotes. It was especially interesting to see how Dick and Ron Wallace, father and son, reacted to the same challenges in different ways, and how they both interacted with Cathy, Dick’s wife and Ron’s mother. And I think Warren was smart to show how the non-pumpkin growers in the various families profiled coped with the growers’ obsession. It helps you make connections between this particular obsession and obsessed people and their obsessions in general.
A Gardener’s Perspective
As a gardener, I paid careful attention to every step of their growing method, evaluating it against my own experience and reading. I could sympathize with Dick’s temptation to take the seed shell off the cotyledon. (Been there, done that–except for me it was lilies.) I heartily approved of the trouble they took to prepare the soil, and was impressed that they knew about mycorrhizae. I applauded their use of compost tea. But when they hauled out the chemicals at the first sign of trouble, boy, did I grimace. The policy seemed to be “Spray first, ask questions later.” And if spraying “solved” the problem, sometimes they didn’t even bother to research the cause. It seemed odd that the growers were moving towards organic means of fertilizing their plants, but still resorted to the harshest poisons to treat diseases and insects. Olaf Ribeiro, a plant pathologist, seemed to share my sentiments:
It frustrated Ribeiro, who had found that pumpkin growers would often discard his advice when they didn’t see immediate results and go back to carpet-bombing the plants with chemicals.
Ribeiro helped me understand the disconnect I saw between how the growers amended the soil organically and yet depended so heavily on chemical solutions:
But Ribeiro also realized the pumpkin growers’ panic was driven by the fact that there was only a limited amount of time in the season. One lost week of growth could put an end to a whole year’s worth of hard work and dreams.
Given that the plants “already were under huge stress as they strained to grow unnaturally large fruit,” perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to grow a competition-worthy giant pumpkin by strictly organic methods, but I’d sure like to see someone try.
I easily get wrapped up in the fate of a book’s characters, so perhaps it’s not too surprising that my eyes welled up when the Topsfield champion was announced, and a tear actually trickled down my cheek when a new world record was achieved at the Frerich’s Farm weigh-off. So when the champion vowed to do even better next year, I had to find out: did he win two years in a row? No. It turns out Joe Jutras set a new world record, with a squash weighing 1689 pounds! I was happy to hear that. I liked Joe and he sure had his share of problems in the book.
This could be a good gift for an older child or young teen, accompanied by a packet of Dill’s Atlantic Giant pumpkin seeds, but only if said youngster has access to a fairly large piece of ground to garden in. Otherwise, stick to sunflowers for your giants.