The two huge castor bean plants on the front lawn catch your eye first. Then you notice that sprawling along the fence by the alley, hyacinth runner bean vines (Dolichos lablab) dangle purple blossoms and matching lima bean-shaped pods. Since these are plants you don't find every day, you assume the caretaker is no run-of-the-mill gardener.
Catching him on the lawn of his Baltimore corner row house one day, you learn that his name is Gene Schwartz. He's a Veterans Administration Hospital social worker in a program aiding servicemen who were prisoners of war. When he shows you the pumpkin in his back yard, you know for certain that his interests are novel plants.
Weighing from 200 to 230 pounds based on its circumference of more than 97 inches, it was the only fruit he allowed to develop on a vine that spread to cover his entire yard, a wedge-shaped plot 40 feet long and narrowing from 18 to 12 feet wide.
Had Mr. Schwartz not been obliged to prune the vine to keep it in check, it would have run up the side of his house, over his fence and on through the neighborhood, eventually covering a third of an acre, he says. The pumpkin would have grown to twice its size. Under the circumstances, Mr. Schwartz says, he "did pretty good."
Mr. Schwartz is a member of the World Pumpkin Confederation. The group, which also encourages the growing of immense squashes, melons and sunflowers, is based in Collins, N.Y. It annually conducts "weigh-offs," and has offered a $10,000 prize for the production of a 1,000-pound pumpkin. On Oct. 8 this year, an 816-pounder topped the 1989 record, a 755-pound pumpkin of the variety Dill's Atlantic Giant. (For information about the group, write to the World Pumpkin Confederation, 14050 Gowanda State Road, Collins, N.Y. 14034. Annual dues $15.)
Mr. Schwartz grew his pumpkin from seed from a 400-pounder produced by the vine bearing the 1989 champion (which judges dubbed "truly Cinderella's Coach"). Gordon Thomson, a retiree from Hemmingford, Quebec, who raises pumpkins as a hobby, gave him the seed.
"You don't grow a pumpkin that big by luck," Mr. Schwartz says. "People who win or get close to it made a science of it."
They prepare the ground thoroughly, adding natural fertilizer such as cow manure and then working it in well, he says. They water and fertilize throughout the growing season, build canopies or tents to protect the fruit from wind and sun, hand-pollinate to ensure the purity of the line and take off all or most female flowers to channel the plant's full energy into a single fruit.
Old hands at the game share trade secrets in the organization's newsletter. To conquer the borer, a treacherous enemy of the pumpkin, one man sat in his garden and studied its life cycle. The moth doesn't lay eggs on the leaves but on the stems and vine, he discovered. He found that if he sprayed these parts weekly with liquid Sevin, beginning when the vine started to run and also after a rain, he could achieve 100 percent control. The time to spray is in late evening after the bees have returned to their hives; the chemical can kill bees, which are needed to pollinate plants.
Another source told Mr. Schwartz that squash leaves droop in heat because high temperatures prevent them from photosynthesizing. He was advised to hook a timer to a hose to mist the plant once every half hour for 30 seconds. With the evaporation rate lowered, plants would perk up.
Mr. Schwartz passed along this tip from his experiences: Whechoosing a pumpkin to develop, stay as close to the main vine as you can so the fruit will receive the most nutrients and grow the biggest.
Pumpkins aren't his only interest. Mr. Schwartz' passion for chili led him to exotic peppers and novel plants. From the Goat Gap Gazette, a publication for chili lovers, he learned that many peppers needed to make chili variations aren't sold in stores in this part of the world. He joined Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit group dedicated to saving old-time food crops from extinction and to preserving heirloom and non-hybrid varieties of seed.
Now he offers seeds to the membership, including those from his hyacinth bean vine and Red Calico, an old variety of lima bean.
This year, Mr. Schwartz plans to add to his list Ecuador, a hot pepper so fiery it's described as "the red pepper from hell" by the seed saver from whom he acquired it.
*The World Pumpkin Confederation, 14050 Gowanda State Road, Collins, N.Y. 14034. Annual dues $15.
*The Seed Savers Exchange, care of Kent Whealy, Rural Route 3, Box 239, Decorah, Iowa 52101. Annual dues $15. Includes seed catalog.
*Park Seed Co., Cokesbury Road, Greenwood, S.C. 29647-0001 is one source of hyacinth bean vine. (The bean from this plant is edible, but the castor bean is poisonous.)
*Goat Gap Gazette, 5110 Bayard Lane #2, Houston, Texas 77006. Issued 11 times a year. Subscription, $16.