Get thee to a pumpkin patch

As temperatures down South dip into the 40s and 50s, tasteful seasonal decorating requires at least one nice gourd on the front porch.

Carlton offers his little pumpkin
Carlton found the perfect sized pumpkin for him at Berry Patch Farms.

Some of you have been so eager for fall temperatures that you ran out and bought a pumpkin when they first arrived in stores or when the pumpkin patches first opened in late August or early September. Sadly, those early pumpkins are now rotten piles of mildew and orange goo or have long since been discarded.

When the air gets that hint of cool crispness, the first line of a poem by James Whitcomb Riley that I memorized in elementary school invades my mind: “When the frost is on the pumpkin…”

We haven’t had a frost yet, here in Atlanta, but now is the right time to get a pumpkin. If you still haven’t made your pumpkin purchase for this fall, here are few pointers to keep in mind:

1.) Pumpkin patches are fun. In my mind, the more authentic the pumpkin patch, the better, but we’ve seen everything from a random assortment of pumpkins laying out in a field to a church selling pumpkins from their front yard to the grocery store to Stone Mountain’s annual Pumpkin Fest where pumpkins are tucked in around the granite boulders. Pumpkin patches are usually accessorized by hayrides, corn mazes and an assortment of fall foods. To make things easier for you, I’ve found a website listing pumpkin patches throughout the Peach State.

Harris with a big pumpkin
Harris likes his pumpkins a little bit bigger.

2.) Purchase pumpkins where you buy your fruits and vegetables. At most of the pumpkin patches I’ve visited, you spend all your money doing the ancillary activities so that by the time you’re ready to pick out your pumpkin, you can’t really afford a nice gourd. Here’s a hint: you can buy the same size or larger at the grocery store for a fraction of the price of a pumpkin patch pumpkin. I apologize to all the pumpkin patch fundraisers out there, but I am duty bound to report this consumer fact to all of my loyal readers… well, both of my loyal readers.

3.) Pick a pumpkin that wasn’t picked in July. The firmer the pumpkin, the fresher the pumpkin. If it gives when you press on it, then it’s ready for the compost heap, not for carving. And if carving isn’t really what you had in mind, there are lots of varieties of guords that may meet your needs better. You can learn more at this site.

4.) Roast the seeds. In elementary school, I had a teacher who handed out roasted pumpkin seeds as rewards. Perhaps I have too much of a psychological investment in pumpkin as a result, but roasted pumpkin seeds are at least as good as sunflower seeds without all the spitting of hulls. We have trouble getting the process right and typically burn ours, but according the pumpkin recipe page, 225 degrees for an hour should do the trick.

Wallace family
Doesn’t the fall just bring out our family’s togetherness?

5.) Start a family tradition. You don’t have to sit in a pumpkin patch at midnight on Halloween to have a great time with gourds in the fall. Every element of the pumpkin process from the selection to the carving makes for great photos and even better memories.

Growing up, my family never really bothered with pumpkins, but Carla and I have purchased at least one pumpkin every year since we had kids. Some years were so busy that we didn’t bother to carve them, but having pumpkins is one of the highlights of our family’s fall activities.

Better get your pumpkin today. The pickins are getting pretty slim at the farms and patches. Pretty soon, all that will be left are the rotting, decaying or mishapen pumpkins, and no one wants a misfit pumpkin on their front porch.

Where do you get your  pumpkins? How many do you buy each year? Do you roast the seeds or try to use the entrails for pumpkin pie? Don’t hold back! Share all your pumpkin secrets by leaving a comment below.

Everything I Need to Know I’m Learning on the Farm

Carlton on Poppy's tractor
Before there was playground equipment, kids played on farm equipment. Looks like farm equipment may be more fun.

Everybody needs a farm.

Not to make a living. That’s one of the hardest things anyone can do with his or her life. No, I think people need a farm, even if they don’t own it, to go and learn how to live. The lessons there are simple, profound and unavoidable.

Last Saturday we visited Sandersville to celebrate my mother-in-law’s birthday. While we were there, we rode out to their farm, about 12 miles outside of town. It’s a great place for suburban boys to get dirty, have fun and do things they normally have to pay for back in the city.

For Barron, it’s a place to practice his marksmanship. Having taken to shooting in his scouting activities, Barron begged like Ralphie for a Red Ryder BB gun this Christmas. When all hope was lost, my parents stepped in and bought him the gift, the last one he received the Tuesday after Christmas.

We set up some plastic bottles and a paper plate as targets. Barron quickly drew up a series of not-so-concentric circles with a Sharpie to make a bull’s eye. It took him and his Poppy several minutes to find the best spot, but it wasn’t long before he was “plinking” BBs off the bottles and popping holes in the uneven rings of his target.

He’s a pretty good shot. He has a fairly steady aim. He’s patient. The only problem arose moments before we left. After an hour or more of shooting, he finally had a BB go astray. It went through the paper plate target, hit the plywood behind it and ricocheted back, hitting Carla in the waist. Although it barely left a mark, we all took note. Never shoot with a firm surface immediately behind your target. What you end up hitting will most likely be you.

While Barron worked on becoming the next “Top Shot,” I drove the other two boys around the farm on Poppy’s camouflaged golf cart. Under Carla’s anxious and omnipresent eye, we slowly traversed the bouncy terrain. I had one hand on the steering wheel and one on Carlton, tucking him close to my side.

Goat stuck in fence
The grass is always greener.

It had been a while since I had driven the property, and when we came to a crossroad on one of the trails cutting through the pine trees, we had a decision to make. I chose the one that I thought led back toward the house. Taking the well-worn path proved to be a good decision. At least in this case, the road less traveled led to a ditch.

After safely depositing Carlton on Poppy’s tractor so he could pretend to clear the back 40, Harris got his driving lesson. We found a good wide path with plenty of clearance on each side and let him test his skills. For the next half hour, we veered from one edge of the path to the other as he consistently overcorrected.  By the time we finished he was doing pretty good, learning that just a slight turn on the wheel here and there will get you where you want to go a whole lot quicker than jerking from side to side.

As we drove the golf cart back to our van, I noticed one of the smaller goats had his head stuck through the fence, unable to pull back through because of his horns. The boys loaded into the minivan to ride home with Carla and her mother while Poppy and I went to rescue the goat with poor decision making skills.

I asked him if this happens often.

Goat with his brothers
The goat on the left was the culprit. You'll notice the youngest kid in the back. Yep, he was bottle fed.

“Aww, I get one or two out nearly every day,” he said. “Sometimes they can get themselves out, but most of the time, you’ve got to help them.”

We pulled up to the fence, got out and Poppy grabbed the goat’s little horns, gently tilting its head so that the horns could go back through the wire. It only took a few seconds, and the little fella was no worse for wear, jumping about and butting heads with his brothers in no time.

There’s always work to be done on the farm. Raising goats and pine trees has its own reward, but maybe, the best crop that farm is producing is three boys. I just hope they are paying attention.

Bottle fed

Baby goat
Poppy with his baby goat.

A few weeks ago, Carla and I took the boys to see her parents in Sandersville. A welcomed retreat from the suburbs to small town Southern life, these trips are especially meaningful to the boys. In Sandersville, they get to enjoy life in a different way.

On this particular visit, Nanny and Poppy had a couple of new additions to their household: two baby goats, only a couple of weeks old. Poppy raises goats as a hobby rather than an agribusiness, and, as he says, it gives him something to do. Twice a day he drives the dozen or so miles out to his farm and tends to them.

The arrival of these two babies was complicated somewhat by the disappearance of their mothers. So what’s a goat farmer to do with nursing baby goats and no mamas?

Bring them home and feed them from a bottle.

The smaller of the two, the brown one, was near death when they got him home. Nanny described him as looking like “an inner tube when all the air has gone out.” But on that warm February Saturday, he was prancing and hopping and running from our boys with vigor. Seems the bottle-feeding, petting and attentive nurturing he was getting did the trick.

I grew up in the city. I don’t have much experience with raising farm animals. In fact, I am embarrassingly ignorant on such matters and feel like a total city slicker when I go out to help my father-in-law at the farm. But it doesn’t seem to me that goat farmers used to be as nurturing. Maybe goat farmers have gone soft.

Oh, you can argue that Poppy was just protecting his investment. But how do you explain the petting? Or the big smile across his face when he describes how he brought the brown one back from the brink of death?

No, there is a connection here between this farmer and his goats. It’s not so strong that he won’t take them to the auction when it’s time, but it’s more of a relationship than a farmer may have had with his livestock a generation ago.

Soon, the two baby goats will be back at the farm, eating grass, hay and whatever they get in their mouths. Maybe their goat friends will mock them for being too soft. Or maybe, they’ll be welcomed into the extended goat family as two members who nearly didn’t make it.

Here’s to the bottle fed among us. A little nurturing can be the difference between and life and death.