When our youngest son, Carlos, read Laura Ingalls Wilder's book "Farmer Boy," he decided to be like Almanzo Wilder and raise a giant pumpkin to enter in our local fair. Carlos perused the seed catalogs, comparing different hybrids, and finally selected a variety that had produced record-breaking pumpkins.
After the seeds arrived, he planted three of them in peat pots and examined them daily, waiting for them to sprout. The seedlings produced thumb-size leaves, and one late May afternoon, Carlos and I chose a location in our garden for his pumpkin patch.
He set out the sturdy seedlings, and his father, John, showed him how to mulch the plants with a ring of compost. The fertilizer would sift down through the soil as the root system expanded. Every day, Carlos toted his green plastic watering can to the garden and soaked the soil around the rambling plant.
When the pumpkins began to flower, Carlos cut off the blossoms from the largest plant, except for one yellow star-shaped flower that shone amid the sea of mammoth leaves. A small green globe formed, and Carlos read to me the pages describing how Almanzo fed his pumpkin with milk.
"My pumpkin needs milk," Carlos said. "Can we feed it some tonight?"
Because we keep dairy goats, milk abounds in our refrigerator. So that July evening, I poured a bowl of milk and Carlos carried it to his plant, wading through the tangle of vines and leaves. He had scooped a shallow depression in the soil where he placed the bowl. I slit the underside of the vine near the small pumpkin and inserted a piece of string that dangled into the milk. The next morning, Carlos ran to the garden and reported that the level of milk in the bowl had not changed.
"Wait," I told him. "It may take all day for the pumpkin to drink the milk."
We checked that evening, but could only detect a slight difference. In the morning, the milk was gone and the bowl tipped over.
"Raccoons," I said. "They came for the corn, but were tickled to find the milk, too."
We refilled the bowl, but after another raid, gave up. Carlos continued watering and mulching his plant, and out of the mass of leaves protruded a bulging green ball. Yellow crept over it and darkened into orange.
Carlos filled out his entry form for the fair, and on our evening strolls, we often ended up in the pumpkin patch estimating the behemoth's weight.