The Vines in the Pines

A Mike McGrath classic from GP No. 48, Winter 2001.

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I grew pumpkins this year.

Yes, I know. I did it, anyway. Because:

a) Life just doesn’t seem as sweet when you only do things that make sense.

b) My column(s) would have to actually be about gardening if I only did things that made sense.

c) Pumpkins are lots of fun to grow. And, everyone together now:

d) “We can always use the eggs!”

(I am not sure I get it, either; it just seems “right” somehow—especially after that blow to the head I took trying to get a big ripe one down out of the trees.)

“OH MY GOD!” my son said. “Look at the size of that thing! Can it hurt us?!”

Yes, trees. I at least had the presence of mind to plant these 600-pound gorillas of the garden at the big raised bed at the farthest edge of my growables, and then train the vines so they would veer away from innnocent crops (well, except for that florid neon-purple eggplant), breach the nearby gully and thence leap into the trees, brambles, and assorted invasive plants working on the other side. Even made a cute little railroad shed-type chicken-wire structure over the vines as they exited the garden area so I wouldn’t step on them by accident. (Unlike the zucchini, which was clearly NOT an accident. No! I stepped on it DELIBERATELY! And I am GLAD I did! The vine borers I relocated failed, so I did it! I just couldn’t stand to come back from one more vacation to a garden filled with giant green baseball bats!)

Sorry. Don’t know why I plant the darn things, anyway. Penance, maybe. Or likely senility, let’s go with penance…

Anyway, the vines went where they were “told,” and looked pretty good in fact—hundreds of big, bright, orange flowers, all moving away from the garden faster than a horde of Triffids chasing their next meal.

Then The Mystery Vine appeared in the center of an old hydroponics tray I used as a growing bed for lemon balm in the delusion this containment will prevent the weed from annexing Poland. (A guy at work gave me the tray, saying he “didn’t need it anymore,” which I translated to mean “I tried to grow some dope in my closet but the plants died, or I got scared that a car thief named Bubba would become my significant other for 5 to 10 years—or both—so you can have it now.”) This viney thing looked interesting, so I went ahead and stuck one of them useless-to-grow-tomatoes-with tomato cages around it for twirling support, forgot about it, and planted my scarlet runner beans.

My old friend Celeste, who runs a company called Obex that makes garden stuff out of recycled plastic, had stopped by in the Spring to give me a fan-shaped “Novawood” trellis. I didn’t have any place to store it so I had to put it out in the garden and find some darn thing to grow on it.

I didn’t have anything obvious (because I didn’t yet realize that the two puny little cucumber plants that hadn’t succumbed to The Black Plague out of the six I started would suddenly develop super-powers, produce HUNDREDS [actual amount, unfortunately, for my poor official-house-pickler wife (“All right—that’s another 12 quarts. NOW STAY OUT OF THE [REALLY BAD WORD] GARDEN!!!”)] of cucumbers and roam not only over to other plants, but other BEDS via their arial highway), and so, when I saw a pack of scarlet runner beans at the local hardware store (at 40% off!), I bought ’em.

I’d been telling people to grow them for years, but, like most things I recommend, had never done it myself, and so:

a) I figured that I finally should.

b) I have an out-of-work trellis that didn’t look especially good naked. And, of course:

c) “We can always use the hummingbirds!”

(Yes, that one DID make sense. It’s like monkeys, typewriters, and Shakespeare.)

I was furious when I tore open the pack and saw there were only SEVEN seeds inside. Big seeds, yes. Very colorful seeds, yes. But SEVEN???!!! I thought 40% meant the price—not the contents!

I spaced them around the trellis, certain the result would be thin and wimpy-looking, and then rushed to pick some bush beans while the plants were still soaking wet and I would hopefully spread any plant diseases they might be developing. (Even though they are NOT vines, they were doing WAY too well and everybody in the house was sick of eating them.)

And then one day I turn around and notice that the scarlet runner beans had filled in the trellis nicely. In fact, you can’t see the trellis anymore. In fact, the vines are visibly stretching and straining, reaching into the air a good foot above where (I am guessing) the trellis tops out. And it’s still June.

Lucky for me some fool planted hardy bamboo on the other side of our screen years ago, so I’d have free poles to lash to the back of a trellis in such an emergency. I took down three of the tallest (18 feet apiece), thickest ones (What ARE you supposed to call the things anyway? “Canes?” “Rods?” “Stalks?” “Asparagus-with-an-attitude?”), secured them, felt superior and in control, turned my back, and the vines had already reached the top and were starting to come back down towards me. (Can’t remember—had I sold the family cow to get these beans?)

All this time I haven’t paid any attention to The Mystery Vine, which has gotten tired of twining around itself, reached over to the next bed and is three-quarters of the way to strangling a poor Roma tomato plant to death. I lop off the offending portions, offer it three of its own giant bamboo stakes in trade, and actually watch it grow up them. Have I said that it had by this point revealed itself to be a morning glory? Well, it had. Now, I have never grown one of these before either, did nothing to get this one here (birds? wind? vandals?), and so it’s not my fault. (Yes, I know it’s invasive [d’uh!!!] And perhaps even vaguely illegal, but those purple flowers are just SO pretty…)

And then the circus came to town. Mit’ elephants. And somebody said, “Hey—we normally just throw away all the stuff the big guys ‘deposit.’ You want some?” Unfortunately, I said “yes.”

I had accidentally snapped off a long pumpkin vine (while trying to direct it away from a patch of garlic it was threatening to harvest) and felt guilty. Not remembering that these things are like salamander tails, I felt I should do something to help the poor dear recover, and so I emptied a trash bag full of really big herbivore doo near where the vine came out of the ground.

The result was pretty much what you’d expect: local school teachers calling to ask why kids from our neighborhood were insisting that pumpkins are a tree fruit.

It’s barely September as I pound out these words of warning. I have harvested six nice-sized “surprises” so far (never know where the darn things are till they start to turn orange), and while checking out a flash of color down in the gully, tripped over what I thought (OK: “hoped”) was a big green boulder (“Moss! That’s it—moss!”). My son came down to see what I was recoiling in horror from and said, “Oh, Dad, you always make such a big deal out of these…OH MY GOD! Look at the size of that thing! Can it hurt us?”

We can only hope not, son.

And so we pray for frost. No one wants to pick the tomatoes and strawberries near the scarlet runner planet (not a typo) because it seems like the vines want to sneak out and grab you. No one will harvest the (exceptional this year!) rosemary that has somehow avoided strangulation next to the morning glory because THAT vine DOES reach out and grab you.

The pumpkin vines are gathering branches from the woods. We fear they plan to build a bridge so they can cross the street.

And the cucumbers! Those vines are so amazingly aggressive you have to be…careful…hey, what’s that? Let go of my leg! Hey, what’s—Crash! Thud! Drag, drag, drag…scrape, drag, scrape…RIP!!! Thud! Crash!

Forget “watch the skies” for flying saucers! Watch the vines! The vines! The…

  • Donna G.

    Oh my Goodness, I about wet myself reading this. As I have had some similar experience. Thanks for the great read!

  • Grace A.

    I loved this story because I have underestimated the power of VINES!!! They definitely have minds of their own!! Take cover but keep checking them so you can save your other wonderful garden plants that you plan on harvesting!!


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