NORTON COLUMN: What four friends learned while building a better pumpkin patch

What do a circuit court judge, a school superintendent, a retail sales manager and a newspaper publisher have in common?

Pumpkins. Really big pumpkins.

You see the judge, let’s call him Scott, has bought big pumpkins for years. He has a weird fascination with the gourds and enjoys putting up a display at his house each year for Halloween. He has done it since his kids were little.

Scott needed help unloading a giant pumpkin last year and the school superintendent, sales manager and newspaper dude were recruited to help unload the 500-pound beast.

Scott Hill-Kennedy germinates and plants seeds in his basement, keeping the young plants warm and toasty.

Shortly thereafter, the good judge was talking to Mr. Sales Manager, who happens to own and run a mid-sized farm on the side. Someone suggested that they try to grow a big pumpkin themselves. That conversation spawned a dream, followed by hours of cold-weather planning, Spring germination and ultimately about four acres of pumpkins, which have now ripened nicely.

Experts that grow giant pumpkins plant about 16 or so and have automatic irrigation systems.

This motley crew planted five times that many — about 85 plants, thinking a bunch would die off.

Didn’t happen.

So the team has been rotating watering duties, diligently traveling to the farm to give each plant a drink. One by one. By hand. Every night. Mr. Superintendent, let’s call him Tom, tried to talk the group into running hose, using sprinklers and planting automatic drip watering devices. We couldn’t tell if he was trying to use brain power or use less muscle power.

Oh wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Said judge did methodical research last winter and was given giant pumpkin seeds from some experts who finally felt sorry for him as he kept hanging around their farm, buttering them up with flattery and oohing and ahhing over their gourds. He then inventoried the seeds, germinated the buggers in his basement, being sure to keep the room at a toasty 86 degrees. Upon germination, he planted them in peat pots suitable for transfer and easy planting in Mr. sales manager’s field.

Mr. Sales Manager, let’s call him Tim, prepped the ground by plowing and disking  and covering it in dairy doo from a neighboring farm.

Newspaper dude, me, picked up some snow fence at an auction sale to protect our prized plot from pesky pumpkin eating deer.

THE RUNTS: Tim Zehr and John Norton are shown with some smaller pumpkins culled from the crop.

In early May we all put up the fence and put the plants in the ground. It was like an Amish barn raising, without as much skill. We paced out how many feet we needed between each plant, dreaming of 30-foot main vines. Each seedling was marked with the weight of the mama pumpkin from which it was born. They ranged from 600 to 1,500 pounds.

And all summer long we’ve watered the plants — even in July when the heat and humidity tested our endurance, and frankly, our common sense. Fortunately, heat stroke was averted, friendships survived and we all developed blisters from watering the plants from five-gallon buckets. All 85 of them. Yes, we bit off more than we could chew.

But we’ve learned a bunch. We battled bugs early in the season. We battled heat and drought. We learned to bury vines, to trim the plants to try and funnel as much energy into one or two pumpkins for each plant.

And we grew attached to them. We named them, for crying out loud. After our kids, our pets and our favorite Tigers. Rumor has it the judge even sang to them at dusk when his watering chores were done. We have Cupcake, Hannibal and Miggy. We have Seth, Sweet Sue and Torrie. We had a few casualties along the way, including Tiny, may it rot in peace.

Tom Langdon is shown preparing to plant a seedling during planting weekend in May.

Some pumpkins are orange. Some are white. We even have a green one that technically may be a squash. Some are nice and round, some are shaped like bells, some are disfigured entirely. We love them all.

We took wives and children and dogs to frolic in the pumpkin patch while we watered and tended to our burgeoning crop. It was all quite peaceful really.

Some hard work, for sure … but for this old farm boy it was great therapy. There’s something to be said for gardening, farming and bringing in the harvest. The harvest isn’t easy, as we have to use a tractor and a special harness to lift the beasts onto a trailer. Thanks to members of the Big Rapids football team who helped unload.

Recent cold nights and frost have ended the growing season. The great pumpkin experiment of 2011 is coming to a close.

Yes, we have some big pumpkins. But it was even bigger fun. Thanks boys.

John Norton is publisher of the Pioneer. Contact him at jnorton@pioneergroup.com.

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