A 200 foot stretch of low land extended from the front of the barn to the back of our house. Fortunately this low area was right next to a rock and pebble reinforced road which stabilized the trucks that brought heavy loads of hay to our loft. Over the years, I got in the habit of filling my wheelbarrow with mounds of soil and forest mulch reclaimed from around the trees behind the barn. I would wheel the mixture through the barn and dump each load into the low patch near the road. I probably dumped 30-50 loads every year into that area, as well as 8-10 wheelbarrows per week of the straw-horse manure mixture that came out of the horse stalls.
The process was slow. After a few years I had worked my way through no more than a quarter of the area I eventually hoped to fill. In retrospect, it reminds me of the process African peasants still use to build up soil to create trench gardens so they can grow vegetables–mix lots of organic matter and manure with a bit of soil, throw in some seeds, and hope for the best.
In the spring and early summer it was impossible to plant anything in that low lying area. It was just too wet–either standing water or quick-sand like conditions prevailed. But later in the summer the low-lying land would dry out, and the area I had filled in would sink a little. After a bit of experimentation, I learned that I could plant some squash, pumpkins or melons along the high side of this ditch and let the foliage grow into the ditch. Provided the spring rains subsided, it was usually dry enough during the summer to get a great harvest before the rains started up again in the fall. It was an accident of nature that first revealed the value of this approach.
One summer I had to take a break for a couple of weeks from my regular routine of dumping my straw-manure mix beside the road. I don’t remember why. I think I was out of town. When I returned, I noticed a very healthy looking set of new pumpkin seedlings growing out of the side of a pile of straw and horse manure. After a few days I thinned them out a bit–leaving only those plants that seemed to be growing a few inches or more each day. Then I promptly forgot about them while I tended to other matters. After a month or so there were pumpkin vines with giant leaves all over the place, growing in every direction. I felt good about it but thought only that the thinning effort had worked well. At the time I couldn’t decide how far the original plants had propagated since there were monster weeds all about. This was not unexpected because I never cut the weeds back until the low area got dry enough to walk into.
In another few weeks, with help from a hot and relatively dry summer, I was able to get in and cut weeds around the vines. As I got past the squashes and melons (and also a few cucumbers), I came upon the first of the pumpkin vines. Wow–I had at least 15-20 pumpkins that were already 8-20 inches in diameter. As I weeded further along, I came upon some really enormous pumpkins hidden under a few really big leaves. Two pumpkins were already 2-3 feet in diameter and would likely get much bigger by harvest.
Now the patch had my full attention! I laid the weed cuttings in among the vines and then watched as pumpkins large and small continued to get bigger and bigger. The largest one was already too big to be lifted by two strong men onto the back of a pick-up truck–and it just kept getting bigger and bigger.
Early fall was fortunately dry that year, so I was able to get into the field. About a week to ten days before Halloween, I carved the largest pumpkin right in the field, removing its innards and cutting the facial features that transformed it into a mammoth Jack-O-Lantern. It was still surprisingly heavy, but I managed to inch it along in the dry ditch. Over the next couple days it dried out even more and I was able to slide it into the wheel barrow and carry it off to the front porch, where I inserted a large candle. To make it stand out even more, I carved out the next largest pumpkin from my patch, fitted it with a big candle and set next to the larger Jack-O-Lantern on the front porch. Unhappily I didn’t write down the actual dimensions of either of these pumpkins. I’m sure they didn’t set any world records, but they were certainly the largest I had ever seen. Plants that emerge spontaneously from unplanted soil are often called profiters. Everyone profited from the pumpkin patch that year–the adults enjoyed the pumpkin pie while watching the trick or treaters ooh and ahh at the Jack-O-Lanterns twinkling on the porch steps.