Halloween 2017: It’s a Wrap

pumpkin penduncles

Three pumpkins, three unique peduncles

In a flurry of activity, Halloween came and went. October 31st landed on a Tuesday this year, but trick-or-treating children continued to ring the bell until 8:30 that night. There were fewer than last year, but we still had about 300 costumed little ones at the door.

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Our driveway at the height of the evening

Passing out Halloween candy

Mike passing out candy at the door

Baby in pumpkin costume

Ray and Sara’s darling “pumpkin” stopped by for a visit and a photo-op

Mike took the day off of work so he would have time to carve pumpkins. It’s become a yearly tradition. We ended up with six pumpkins this year. I planted three from Bonnie Plant starters, and the squirrels planted three more. One of the pumpkins rotted in the week leading up to Halloween, but the others were hale and hearty.
The pumpkins went from this

To this

and finally this: I’ve had as much fun watching the squirrels “clean up” as I did when the pumpkins were whole and carved.

Mike came up with our costume idea this year. We dressed as “aging” (ha) black and white screen stars. We rented costumes from a local place called Natasha’s Attic. I bought a black wig but Mike’s hair is naturally dark so he just had to wear a hat. We applied grey theatrical makeup to any exposed skin, then used black mascara and white makeup for highlight and shadows.  If you follow this link, you’ll see the stunning example we worked from. We’re makeup novices, but we made do with our limited skills and had fun.

I helped my sister pull together her costume again this year. We’ve always enjoyed dressing up for Halloween. Sharon has MS and relies on a motorized scooter to get around so her costume has to be easy to put on and off.

Last year I bought a small, decorative cat from my friend Lexi’s Etsy shop. I knew Sharon would love it, and could use it to decorate the front of her scooter. That cute little cat inspired this year’s costume!  She decided to dress up like the little cat.

I made a small tulle apron to match the one on the kitty, and I used one of my soft pumpkins for her wrist. I added a scrap of green ribbon, then sewed the pumpkin to a hair tie. I picked up the cute glasses at a paper store of all places. If you follow this link to Kelly’s blog, you’ll see the two of us sporting a pair. Sharon popped out the lenses, then wore the kitty glasses over her own.  The small skeleton came from a shop in Willow Glen, and Sharon bought the faux fur scarf online. She’s always cold, so she really liked the warmth it provided.  I think she’s adorable.

At long last, we’re enjoying autumn-like weather. Halloween, 2017, is a wrap.

Growing Pumpkins: A Seasonal Favorite

If you’ve been following along for a while, this will come as no surprise: I love pumpkins.

I love growing them, harvesting them and finding creative ways to show them off leading up to Halloween. Mike takes over from there, carving extraordinary Jack o’ lanterns for the front deck.

After growing pumpkins for a decade, I had two bad seasons in a row. Squash bugs infested my small patch the first year, claiming a few pumpkins entirely, forcing an early harvest of what remained. I relocated the pumpkin crop from the back garden to the front the following summer, but as soon as the plants fruited the squash bugs were back. Then the drought dragged on and I stopped planting them altogether.

The pumpkin growing hiatus did the trick and sent those dreaded squash bugs packing. Further, I’ve now had a couple of self-seeded pumpkin vines grow without a single drop of additional water, at least from me. All the reading I’ve done says that pumpkins like warm, moist soil and lots of water. I learned last summer, though, that they can hydrate from the morning dew using their straw-like stems. Don’t you just love nature’s resilience?

Late last year, after Halloween had come and gone, I did what any self-respecting gardener would do. I harvested the seeds, dried them and stored them for the winter.

Ha! I’m kidding!

Instead of saving the seeds, I sent a “written invitation” to the neighborhood squirrels. What exactly does that look like, you ask? The first invitation was subtle. I placed a pumpkin in the center of the garden and carried on with my day. I glanced out the window from time to time, and sure enough, this cautious squirrel showed up for a meal.

They don’t like the fruit or the skin, but there are plenty of other garden visitors to take care of that. It wasn’t long before it looked like pumpkin mush.

The second “invitation” landed on the back steps in view of the sliding glass door. I kept the camera nearby and sure enough another squirrel came along and helped him or herself to the seeds.

I love watching squirrels eat as they sit on their haunches keeping watch.

Fast-forward to this spring, and I’ve got pumpkins growing throughout the garden. There are a couple of large specimens growing along the side of the house. As an aside, I removed three large flowering vines last year so we could replace the dilapidated fence. I didn’t want to replant anything till the new fence went in. Long story short, it will be October before it’s replaced. Meanwhile, the pumpkins showed up and off they grew.

One of the pumpkin plants actually made it into a planter box and it’s also the first to produce fruit. It’s getting the best sunlight and moisture from a drip system so it’s doing well.

There are three smaller pumpkin vines, struggling to take hold but refusing to give up. I’m just letting them be for now.

The biggest surprise showed up in the last couple of weeks under our home office window. After freshening up the front garden after the sweet-peas went to seed, we replanted the area under the window with a gardenia and a few sunflowers.  A week or so later, in the blazing heat I might add, I brought home 36 bags of redwood mulch and covered every bit of exposed dirt. We upped the watering to twice a week to help establish the new plants, and with that several more pumpkin plants arrived on the scene.

I love checking on the vines each day, following the traditional progress of male flowers, then the female flowers and with good pollination, wonderful fruit. If our luck holds, and the rats, opossums and squirrels let them be, we’ll have carving pumpkins once again.

Fingers crossed.

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The End of the Lawn: Our Garden One Year Later

I’m excited to share photos of our garden one year later. We replaced our lawn last November with drought tolerant and California native plants.

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November 2015 * Newly planted native garden in front of the house

Not only do these plants survive and thrive on limited water, but they also attract hummingbirds, bees, and other beneficial insects. Those visitors are a boon to any garden.

native garden

November 2016 * Native garden one year later

Salvia and native grasses

Salvia and native grasses

Nepeta and newly sprouted sweet peas

Nepeta and newly sprouted sweet peas

Once established, the plants only need water about once a week. It’s been an exciting step away from the outdated monoculture of suburban lawns to a more bio-diverse garden. As the drought dragged on, I let go of the fantasy of a cottage garden and fully embraced a garden that fits my environment. San Jose averages only 15 inches of rain a year, and virtually no rain throughout the hot summer months.

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November 2015 * Newly planted native garden in back of the house

November 2016 * Native garden one year later

November 2016 * Native garden one year later

native garden back of house

2016 Native garden near swing

native garden near patio

2016 * Native garden near patio

Adding a rain catchment system earlier this year meant I could fill a box with tomato plants and water them guilt-free. I’m also enjoying letting things be, which means making sure a weed is a weed before yanking it from the earth. We’ve had a number of self seeded flowers this year including Sweet Peas, Nigella and Mirabilis Jalapa.

Halloween “Postmortem”

We’re exhausted (because we’re not twenty anymore) but boy did we have fun. We attended two Halloween costume parties, back to back.

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First Halloween costume party of the season

We were too darn tired for the final party, but missed out on seeing those friends.  On Halloween night we opened the door to over 400 candy-seeking trick-or-treaters.

Halloween Night 2016

Halloween Night 2016 * These two homemade costumes were my favorite of the night. Upper and lower left, our front garden under blue lights. Mike’s pumpkins after dark, lower center

Mike expertly carved four of the seven pumpkins, leaving the two round ones for my first attempt at pumpkin soup. The smallest of the seven is part of my Thanksgiving display.

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Spiderman, a Minion, Arching cat on a slate roof, Socks the cat

Our costumes needed explaining at the Friday party (what…you’re a meat pie?) but Saturday’s party was a different story. Pretty much everyone dressed up as either a character from the movie Sweeney Todd, or as someone from the Victorian era.

mrs-lovett-and-her-famous-meat-pie

Our hosts, who are also from the UK, served a variety of traditional meat pies, but included a vegetarian option for yours truly.  They really got everyone in the spirit. We played a few games, danced and Martin gave all the guys a pretend shave, fully embracing his role as host and the deranged barber, Sweeney Todd. Diane dressed as Mrs. Lovett. You’ll see photos of the two of us and other party-goers in the short video clip below.

My lovely host awarded me the prize for best female costume at the second party. I’m pretty sure it was my crazy wig that pushed things over the top.sweeney-todd-party-alys-and-diane

alys-with-skeleton-in-red

I bumped into this skeleton in the lady’s room. The cheek!

All in all, it’s been a fabulous Halloween season.

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The Giving Pumpkin

On a cool winter day, long before its scheduled appearance, a tiny pumpkin seed broke ground. How quaint, I thought, but how could it last? It was still cold at night.

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Pumpkin Sprout * March 4th, 2016

According to my seed packet, pumpkin seeds should go in the ground in May after “danger of frost has passed.” It was early March after all.

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The start of something special

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Pumpkin Vines (foreground). My crop grown from seeds in the Earth Box. RIP my failed little crop. * May, 2016

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Pumpkin Vines and a Strolling Mouse the Cat * May 26th, 2016

As weeds appear, they are unceremoniously tugged from the earth, but I let other tiny seedlings grow. When it comes to my garden I’m part dictator (off with their weedy heads) and part socialist (everyone deserves a fair chance).  I didn’t pamper the pumpkin, but I didn’t discourage it either. Before long, we were checking on the plant every day.  In the heat of summer, pumpkin vines grow like weeds. Curly tendrils grab hold of nearby plants and meander across the garden. The Giving Pumpkin took off before spring!

If you’re new to planting pumpkins, it goes like this: the seed sprouts and a small plant appears. Several leaves form and the vine trails. Male flowers start to grow on the vine, opening by day, closing at night, and dropping from the vine within a day or two.

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Male Pumpkin Flower * May 7th, 2016

Then the female flowers appear and the bees are on the job. The bees travel between blooms, cross-pollinating as they gather nectar for the hive.

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Female Pumpkin Flower

Presto! Tiny green pumpkins begin to form on the vine. It’s not a done deal by any means. Those tiny pumpkins might last a day or two before shriveling and dropping to the ground. Sooner or later though, a glorious pumpkin takes hold and off it grows. If you’re lucky, the fabulously forming fruit goes undetected by rats, squirrels and the dreaded squash bugs.

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Turning Orange in the Sun * June, 2016

The size of the mature leaves closely determines the size of the pumpkin.

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Pumpkin leaf correlates to the size of the fruit

Here’s what’s new this year with this fabulous giving pumpkin. As the fruit forms, the energy diverts from the plant to the fruit.  In the past, once that happened there was no turning back. In rapid succession, the leaves turned ashy, literally crumbling to dust in your hands.

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Pumpkin leaves turn to ash

I removed the dead leaves, harvested all three pumpkins, and figured that was that. My son asked it we could leave the vine a little longer, as we spotted a tiny budding pumpkin. So we did. To my delight, several new leaves formed at the joints and the vine took on a second life: more leaves, more flowers, more fruit. I’ve never “grown” such a prolific pumpkin.

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Pumpkin Vine at Dusk * June 10th, 2016

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New growth on the self seeded pumpkin

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Tall twins and a cousin * August 9th, 2016

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A Second Pair of Pumpkins * August 9th, 2016

The average life of a pumpkin plant is 90 to 125 days from seed to maturity. When I harvested the last pumpkin we were well into October.

The last of the pumpkins. Not quite orange, but full of teeth marks.

The last of the pumpkins. Not quite orange, but full of teeth marks.

What a fabulous crop! I may start following Pauline’s advice. I’ll just toss a bunch of seeds over my shoulder and let nature do the rest. This season was great fun.

*With a tip of my hat to Shel Silverstein, author of The Giving Tree.

Note: On October 31st, my husband carves the pumpkins and we display them on the deck. We average 300 costumed children at our door each year. It’s a festive night. Here are some of his carvings from prior years.

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10 Reasons to Love October

October is my favorite month. I’m not alone. October ranks in the top three in a number of surveys, vying with May for the top spot.

Here is my personal, unscientific top ten reasons to love October.

10. October starts with my birthday and ends with Halloween

Okay, so not everyone is born in October, but if you love cooler weather, falling leaves and crisp air, this is the birthday month for you. If you’re mad for Halloween, also like me, you have 31 days of fun in store.

alys' birthday

Mike finds beautiful Halloween cards for my birthday

9. It’s a lovely month in both hemispheres

I’ve learned a lot about the southern hemisphere in my years of blogging. Most of us complain about the bitter winter months, but October is the start of spring for my friends in New Zealand and Australia, and the beginning of autumn here in San Jose. Everybody wins!

8. The return of gardening weather

Finally! The earth tilts on its axis as we head toward winter and cooler weather prevails. I can water the plants, pull weeds and put the garden in order without risking heat stroke.

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Hydrangea’s fall colors

7. Pumpkins

If you’ve been following along for a while, you’ll know that I dedicate a lot of blog “real estate” to growing, care-taking, harvesting and decorating with pumpkins. My husband takes over on Halloween, carving the pumpkins we grow into lovely works of art. We save some of the seeds to plant the following year. We offer the pulp and a generous helping of seeds to the squirrels to who are busy foraging for the winter. The neighborhood squirrels planted their extra seeds this year, turning out all the lovely pumpkins in this photo. I’ve even dedicated a page to our love of pumpkins. Can you see it at the top of the blog?

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Growing and harvesting pumpkins

6. Planning a Halloween costume

My love of theater and sewing merge in October. I get to plan and create a costume for a couple of parties and if I’m not too tired, I’ll wear it on Halloween night. My sister Sharon and I have always had fun dressing up. I gave it up for many years, turning my attention to the boy’s costumes instead. In recent years, I’m back in the swing of things and I always have fun. This year I’m actually renting my costume, but sewing one for my husband. Stay tuned for the silly details.

5. National Chocolate Day

It should come as no surprise that the National Confectioners Associate designated October 28th as National Chocolate Day. As a lifetime chocolate lover working hard to keep sugar at bay, I’m thinking this might be just the day for me. I can choose to indulge in this delectable treat once a year, banishing it from my daily diet and making it a special treat. As always, I’m a work in progress.

chocolate-pumpkin

This chocolate pumpkin was a gift from a friend one year

4. National Cat Day

Every day is cat day in this household. That said, I appreciate the intentions of this charitable organization. They seek to:

” help the public recognize the number of cats that need to be rescued. The day also encourages cat lovers to celebrate the cats in their lives for the unconditional love and companionship that they bestow upon them.

This day is sponsored by the Animal Miracle Foundation and was created by Pet Lifestyle Expert and Animal Welfare Advocate, Colleen Paige, in 2005. Since its inception, it has helped save the lives of more than one million cats.” Source: National Day Calendar

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My son’s larger-than-life, inflatable cat. Mouse the cat is the real deal.

3. Rain in the Forecast

After months of dry weather, October kicks off our rainy season. I love the rain as much as I love pumpkins. You know that is saying a lot.

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Once upon a time it rained in San Jose

2. Snuggle weather

After months of hot, dry days, it’s a delight to curl up under a warm blanket with a hot mug of tea at hand. Longer evenings give themselves over to more indoor leisure like assembling a puzzle, reading a thick book (or more blogs!) and making crafts.

1. Halloween

Halloween is the second most popular holiday in America, behind Christmas. It evolved over the years “from Medieval rituals to the 1950’s kid-centered activity it is today.”  You can follow this link to history.com to watch a two-minute video on the origins of the day. My youngest son, now 16, still enjoys the festivities. He and a friend create a “haunted deck” each year, using black plastic sheeting and an assortment of props. We live in a neighborhood populated with young children and words gets around. Last year we handed out candy to nearly 400 trick-or-treating children. There are knocks at the door for nearly three hours. It’s festive and fun. Everyone’s exhausted by November 1st, ready to settle in to cooler days, but until then, Halloween is great fun.

Is October your favorite month?

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Pumpkins in July?

Seriously.

After my squash bug infestation a few years ago, and a follow on year resembling squash bug Armageddon, I stopped planting pumpkins for a few years. With little rain over a four-year period, those pumpkin-sucking bugs easily over-wintered and destroyed my meager crop. Twice.

Last summer, something amazing happened: one noble pumpkin grew in the middle of my former lawn. Without any water and not a squash bug in sight, the plant served up a perfectly formed and cherished pumpkin. I’ve since learned that pumpkin plants can survive on morning dew, taking in the moisture through their straw-like stems and delivering it to the root of the plant. Color me impressed!

This year we had our first season of near-average rainfall. We also installed a rain water catchment system.

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Rain Catchment System

I took the plunge and bought a package of seeds. I prepared one of my Earth Boxes and waited for the temperatures to rise. The packet directions said to plant once night-time temperatures were consistently above 50 degrees F (10C) which for San Jose is usually May.

Meanwhile, seeds planted last fall by our neighborhood squirrels took root. They found a home near the patio in the newly planted, drought-tolerant garden. I let them grow of course, but figured the cold nights that followed would dash our hopes. As the temperatures rose and I planted my own seeds, the squirrel’s garden happily meandered along, pest-free and robust.

Pumpkin Vines 2016 collage

A pumpkin we will grow

One plant stayed small, and produced a single, perfectly formed round pumpkin. It started out dark in color, almost a pine green, before turning a lovely orange. The sister plant took off across the garden, racing toward the swing and sending out runners in both directions.

Pumpkin Vines near gravel 2016

The Meandering Pumpkin

The second pumpkin plant produced four tall pumpkins before the vine started dying back.

We were eager to harvest them before the squirrels stopped by for lunch. We put them in our garage to let the stems dry for a few days, then brought them into the house. Typically we wouldn’t be harvesting until September.

As I ready for my trip to Canada on Monday, I’ll leave it to my son to harvest the last three pumpkins. He’s looking forward to it. Meanwhile, the tomatoes are flush, producing a delicious crop. My new favorite is a ‘Black Cherry’, a sweet and juicy heirloom tomato that is melt-in-your mouth delicious. I’m definitely saving seeds for next year.

assorted heirloom tomatoes

Heirloom Tomatoes: ‘Mr. Stripey’ and ‘Black Cherry’

Tomatoes and Pumpkins in July

Tomatoes and Pumpkins in July

I’m in count-down mode: Edmonton here I come!

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Mad About Pumpkins

We’re mad about pumpkins. We grow them, dress them up and carve them for Halloween. Without further ado, some of my favorite pumpkins from the past decade.