Pumpkins: canvas farming; The most common practical application are still birdhouses | National News – 71Bait

Unassuming and unappealing when left alone, pumpkins have a potential limited only by the artist’s imagination.

Dickie Martin grew up at the end of Ghost Creek Road in Laurens. Around 70 years later, he and his wife Linda still live there, surrounded by their children. The original home faces a freshly plowed field of deep red clods of heavy clay that will soon be planted with pumpkins.

Spending time with Dickie is like reading a good book. The story is full of unlikely characters who, with a little help, transform into beautiful works of art. And Dickie is a master at creating the canvas.

Its story begins much like that of many other farmers – diversifying crops to supplement income. “I was working for Ceramtec at the time and thought I was probably going to be fired because of their financial problems,” Dickie recalls. “Back then we raised cattle and hay.

“At first I thought about growing pumpkins, but the turnaround time was very short. Then I thought of melons, but harvesting is very labor intensive.”

After some research on the internet, Dickie decided that he would grow pumpkins.

“That was my speed. I was able to get them out of the field at my own pace.”

After Dickie settled on pumpkins as his next farming venture, Dickie and Linda began their research by visiting the Florida Gourd Show. As a result, Dickie also attended what he called a “pumpkin gathering” in Savannah, Georgia. On these trips he met Lena Braswell from Georgia. Lena’s farm in Wrens was once known as the “pumpkin capital of the world”.

Lena gave Dickie some seeds and some advice and he sowed his first crop. Ghost Creek Gourds was born. “We went out and grew some pumpkins, and then that same year we went to the Florida Gourd Show to sell our crops.”

Since then, Dickie has grown into one of the top pumpkin growers in the business, growing between 4 and 12 acres of pumpkins each year.

The Martins plant around 15 different types of pumpkin and Dickie lists them in rhythmic cadence: “These are long-stemmed dippers – they grow in an arbor behind the house. They have cannonballs, dippers, monkey gourds and dinosaurs. These are gourds, but I call them human gourds – the craftsmen draw people or rabbits on them. Apple squashes look like apples. Squash squashes – people paint them orange to make them look like a squash and they are very popular in the fall. The warts – people make sheep out of them. Then there is the African wart. These Indonesian bottle gourds are used to make turkeys. It really is all that the imagination carries.”

While the gourds are very non-traditional in their purpose, they do stick to a typical growing regime.

Dickie plows the fields every year after the harvest, turning under weeds and old plants to reveal rust-red clay. He then spreads fertilizer over the field, pulling rows every 10 feet. Each row will have a strip of drip tape running down the middle to carry both water and pest control to the plants. Then the rows are covered with a biodegradable plastic to reduce pressure from weeds.

Once the field is prepared, planting begins. The field is divided by variety for ease of harvesting and sorting.

“I planted in mid-April, but the pumpkins don’t tolerate frost. So I usually wait a bit later to plant,” Dickie explains.

Pumpkins grow out of a bush and then begin to twine in a pattern similar to cucumbers. Each vine will produce five to fifteen gourds. Once the plant begins to grow, fungi – particularly anthracnose – become a problem.

“Very early [growing gourds]”I had a total loss because of anthracnose,” Dickie said. “The gourds just melted into the ground.” Afterwards, Dickie, working with Clemson Extension plant pathologist Tony Keinath, introduced a spraying regimen to control the fungus.

Rodents also enjoy their share of the prey, and squirrels and mice drag the pumpkins to the edge of the field to feast on their prey. “Squirrels eat a pumpkin every day,” Dickie said.

The pumpkins are fully grown in midsummer and remain in the field to dry until next March. It can take several months to fully dry or harden. During the ripening process, the gourds are very soft and spongy, so care is taken not to disturb them at this stage. Think “sleeping beauties…”

Dickie hires a worker to harvest the pumpkins. They are cut from the vines and then separated by variety in large white plastic bags. Once the squashes are harvested, they remain in the field until later in the summer. Then, with some family help, Dickie brings the pumpkins from the field to his storage area. “We transport 8-10 bags at a time and then stack them across the street. We cover them with tarps I get from billboards. The tarps keep the squirrels out and protect them from the sun and rain.”

Here the pumpkins wait until it’s time to start their transformation.

Before they can be made into beautiful works of art, the mottled skin must be washed off. When Dickie started, he did things a little differently.

“The first year I was ‘unclean gourds’, meaning we didn’t wash the skins off. This Mississippi guy I met at a show told me we had to start washing up,” Dickie recalled.

“When I saw him at the show the next year, he asked if I had started washing, but I hadn’t. He said, ‘I’ll send you something to help you.’ Well, he sent me the whole boom to pressure wash the gourds and he would never take money for it. He was a good guy.”

The pumpkins are washed in a large cattle trough. The boom, gifted to Dickie, fits over the tip with six nozzles fitted along the length of the tube. It is hooked up to a rebuilt pressure washer pump. Water builds up to about 1200psi, and as you run, the high-pressure water shooting out of the jets creates a whirlpool effect in the tub. The gourds float around one another like rocks in a rapids and come out smooth and skinless in a few hours.

Washing the pumpkin is not without entertainment. Dickie laughed at one such example: “I was washing a lot of pumpkins, and when I came out one night I had to scrub the pumpkins a little. I kept hearing a frog, and it kept changing tone and changing tone. Finally I saw that he was riding a gourd around the tub. He was small but he really made a lot of noise!”

After the pumpkins are cleaned, they are taken onto a trailer to dry before finally going to the barn, which is their last stop before being sold. The floor of the barn is covered with large sacks, each filled with a different type of pumpkin.

Pumpkins are sold through direct marketing, and much of their revenue is generated from attending pumpkin fairs. Dickie estimates they sell between 400 and 500 pumpkins at some of the bigger shows.

“It used to be Florida, Indiana in April — that’s the exact time you’re trying to plant — then Cherokee [North Carolina], Georgia, Alabama and Ohio in the fall. Now we only go to Florida, Cherokee and Ohio,” Dickie said.

“Indiana was once the premier pumpkin fair with 15 to 20 pumpkin vendors and about five to six commercial pumpkin growers like us.

“The show moved to South Bend from Kokomo, Indiana. I used to tell people the only thing I remember about South Bend was Notre Dame and potholes,” Dickie joked.

Ghost Creek Gourds sales are split fairly evenly between sales at fairs, online sales, and artisans who buy direct from the farm. They’ve made a name for themselves with their customers thanks to the extra steps that go into washing each squash.

Dickie still marvels at the potential each pumpkin has.

“You can turn a $3 pumpkin into a $30 pumpkin and all you have in it is time.”

He described an artist who can visualize 3-D images containing the gourd and carves them into lifelike sculptures using wood-fired tools.

“It’s just incredible,” he said.

The most common and practical uses for the gourds are those made into birdhouses. The Martin Squash variety is an ideal nesting site for Purple Martins, giving them just the right space to build their nests. Although this particular variety is named after its feathered residents, Dickie doesn’t waste an opportunity to embellish a little: “I tell people ours are the only ‘Martin’ Martin pumpkins in existence. They give me a little weird look before they realize my last name is Martin,” he chuckled.

Last year, Dickie lined up a row of 50 pumpkins for the Habitat Purple Martin. There were about three or four pairs of original residents; now it’s like 18 or 20. And they come back every year.

In a field of freshly plowed clay, a stark contrast to the bright blue sky, the line hangs over the horizon. The line, strung between two poles, probably 15 feet or more above the ground, is strewn with gourds, their openings pointing in different directions; some painted black, some painted white. Though Dickie says the birds don’t seem to have a preference.

The birds dart in and out of the pumpkins – flying straight into the opening with extreme precision, without even a rub. They stick their heads out and twitter at each other like neighbors exchanging gossip. Then pull the leash off all at once.

“The birds like people and they like to be in groups.”

Dickie calls the structure an achievement.

This success is just one of many. Another value is the South Carolina Gourd Festival hosted by Dickie and Linda. The show previously moved across the state but has found a home in Ghost Creek. That year, the South Carolina Gourd Society, of which Dickie and Linda are directors, received a grant to help market the show.

“Have you seen our billboard?” asked Dickie. (You can’t miss it — it’s just off the side of Interstate 385.) “We’re hoping to have 1,000 or more visitors this year.”

Six or seven artisans will be on hand to sell their art, and visitors will also have the opportunity to take a variety of classes to learn different types of gourd art techniques.

Dickie and Linda Martin have taken the South Carolina pumpkin industry to a new level. Their superior product is certainly one reason, but their warm, welcoming spirit probably deserves more credit. They are committed to nurturing relationships and growing unique canvases from their clay soil.

Farming is truly an amazing craft. The crops that farmers grow nourish and enrich our lives in many ways. Sometimes all it takes is a little imagination.

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