Gardening

After a disappointing summer growing season, some pumpkins that randomly self-seeded from the compost in the front yard become the only harvest success. By Margaret Simons.

Gourd almighty

Pumpkins ripe for the picking.
Credit: Alex Donin / Shutterstock

I didn’t mean to grow the pumpkins. I don’t have room in my tiny, light-challenged inner suburban garden for sprawling vine-fruits. I grow what I can on the verandah, herbs in the shade in the backyard and most of my vegetables at the front, where a narrow strip of soil divides my house from the pavement.

I try to keep the front yard looking good, as well as productive. The tomatoes are tied to their stakes with proper ties, rather than the old pantihose I use at the back. At the front, I plant lettuce in rows. In the backyard, I scatter seed like salt.

But pumpkins grew, nevertheless. They volunteered for duty from the compost I spread at the beginning of summer. Then I went away for a week and on my return, they were too vigorous and assertive for me to want to pull them out. As an enthusiastic rather than expert gardener, I am unwilling to kill anything with a strong will to live. So many productive plants, after all, acquire a death wish under my care.

At Christmas, the pumpkins looked great. In January they began to take over the front yard. The eggplant and capsicum were overwhelmed and shaded out. The carrots died under big, flaccid pumpkin leaves. The vines crept into my neighbour’s garden and grew over the low front wall and onto the pavement. I kicked the tendrils back against the wall to keep the walkway clear.

Behind my neighbour’s gas meter a Queensland blue began to grow, moulding itself around the pipes and metal box like an urban tumour. I had to cut it and prise it free in pieces. I reconstructed it in the kitchen as best I could, roasted it, and ate the reverse image of the gas meter in sweet orange flesh.

Then there was the little butternut that hung off the bean stakes, threatening to bring down the whole structure. That is, until one Saturday night a group of drunks staggered out of the pub across the road and hung around outside my house loudly discussing Australian foreign policy. Truly, that is what they were talking about. They favoured increased defence spending and going to war if China invaded Taiwan.

I was watching and listening from my darkened front room – not because I was spying but just because I happened to be there. I did not twitch the net curtain – I am not that kind of neighbour. I did not go out to take part in the debate – although I am that kind. Instead, I stood in the dark, a mute pyjamaed sentinel, witnessing this tiny chapter of urban life and thinking vaguely about Hong Kong and Collins-class submarines and the disputed reefs and atolls of the South China Sea.

Then one of the young men unzipped and pissed on the pumpkin leaves. Without zipping up, he plucked the butternut and threw it to his mate, who dropped the catch and kicked it instead. They played kick to kick with my pumpkin while I considered whether to get dressed and intervene. A quarter of an hour later my volunteer pumpkin lay spilling its guts in the middle of the road.

I tapped on the glass, which achieved nothing. I doubt they heard me. I felt feeble.

As the pumpkins grew more, the tomatoes saved themselves by climbing higher up the stakes. The beans climbed up the pumpkin and the pumpkin climbed up the beans, and both climbed up the wall, grabbing on to cracks in the windowsill and clawing the irregularities in the bricks. By February my front yard was a riot – a mess, and a little frightening.

There were three species of pumpkin – the Queensland blue, the butternut and a third that has yielded fruit with a bright orange skin and green knobs, like something out of Doctor Who. I had never eaten anything like it, so how had the seeds got into my compost? Or was there some cross-fertilisation breeding experiment going on? Was any of this in my control? Should I assert myself and tear them out?

I fancied that my neighbours, who are usually complimentary about the amount of food I produce in my tiny space, were beginning to resent the pumpkins and the mess they made. One of the Queensland blues, growing on the pavement side of the fence, was big enough to force people to skirt round it. I cut it after a while and made soup.

Finally, last weekend, it was time to tidy it all up. The growing season is over. Autumn is the season for restoring order, for cutting back, for recovery from summer excess, for revealing the soil and building the compost heap and finding the broad bean seed. Once our ancestors held harvest festivals.

But the summer just gone has been the least fulfilling I can remember. All over Melbourne people are lamenting over the tomatoes that never ripened. Do we leave the plant in the ground for one more week and hope for a last burst of ripening warmth, or accept the outcome, rip the plant out and make green tomato pickle, or Annie Smithers’ cake or relish (recipes on following page)? I have opted to leave the tomatoes in place for another week, and hope.

Even my lettuce has been a disappointment this year. It sulked through the unseasonably cool days then bolted to seed at the first sign of a bit of warmth.

The Asian greens all got fungus because of the damp. The kale succumbed to ravenous aphids. The possums ate the peas and the strawberries. My beans were good, but I couldn’t always reach to harvest them because of the pumpkins.

None of my plans have worked. It has all been a waste of time, fertiliser and potting mix, with only green tomatoes and fat possums to show for it. I feel like a fraud.

The unintentional pumpkins have been my only unqualified gardening success this season.

I thought I had harvested them all as they ripened. I was wrong. On my tidying mission I waded knee deep into the green and began to pull at the big leaves and sappy stalks, finding the soil again. I dumped the foliage over the fence, apologising to the pedestrians. There was so much plant to deal with.

Under the green tide I found more pumpkins. One had leveraged itself between the wall of the house and a concrete pot, and now the pot was pushed onto an angle, threatening to fall. I found another hanging from the letterbox, and a knobbly orange customer behind the garden gate. There were pumpkins everywhere, in the oddest places.

I ended up with 12 pumpkins on my dining room table, their stalks pointing every which way like the legs of unsynchronised swimmers. My compost bin is full to overflowing with the remnants of their support system, and just after I dumped them I read a story in the literary magazine Meanjin that told me you can de-string the vines and stir-fry the bits with soy and fish sauce. Too late.

Now my garden is neat again and I have plans. I am going to pull out the lavender hedge to grow more food, and plant a deciduous tree to shade the front window. It will need to be a productive tree – an apple, quince or pear. I will buy it bare rooted in winter.

My garden then will be perfectly neat, because there will be little life, and therefore no accidents or unintended consequences.

And because I will be attempting less, both failure and success will be modest.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 10, 2021 as "Gourd almighty".

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Margaret Simons is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and author. She reports on business for The Saturday Paper.