A few years ago someone asked me to stop at their house and check out a strange vine that was growing alongside their driveway.
''It's the strangest thing I've ever seen,'' the man said, ''and it just keeps getting bigger. We don't know how it got here because we didn't plant it.''
My curiosity got the best of me and since he didn't live far from my office, I stopped over one afternoon to see this amazing plant.
I asked him if he ever put pumpkins on the patio around Halloween and he answered yes, every year they put jack-o-lanterns out for trick-or-treaters. I told him that what he had was a pumpkin vine, obviously a volunteer, viable wayward seed from a decorative pumpkin.
Since it looked quite healthy and was producing flowers, I told him he could probably end up with homegrown jack-o-lanterns.
I enjoyed growing pumpkins in our home garden and every year would try several different varieties. I grew the white variety Lumina, that was both intriguing and ominous-looking on Halloween when carved and glowing with a candle inside. I never attempted the giant pumpkins that competitors take to county fairs to be weighed and judged, but I was fascinated by their size.
I have grown varieties of baking pumpkins and have made pies from their flesh. That was an experience in itself as they are extremely hard-shelled and difficult to cut, yet when baked, sink into themselves and can be quite messy.
That season I managed to bake a few whole pumpkins in the oven and freeze the flesh for several pies, but decided it wasn't worth the effort. Since then all of my pie pumpkin comes from a can.
The most fun I had was growing the tiny ''We Be Little'' variety. My only use for these little gems, which are about the size of baseballs, was in fall decorations. One vine produced much more than I could use and I gave several away to friends.
I don't grow pumpkins now because an infestation of squash bugs I couldn't keep up with a few years ago practically decimated my entire crop. Some day when I have time to diligently check for egg clusters beneath the pumpkin leaves, I will grow them again.
If you are interested in growing your own jack-o-lanterns, here are a few pumpkin-growing tips:
Pumpkins grow easily from seed, but they are a long season crop and seedlings are tender. Start them early indoors about six to eight weeks before the last frost, which in our area is around mid- to late-May. Keep an eye on the weather.
Do the math. Pumpkins need at least 110 to 140 frost-free days for growing. Since our first frost averages around mid-to late-September, count backward from around Sept. 20 and that will tell you when to plant your pumpkin seedlings outdoors.
You can start them from seeds in mounds of soil with about four plants per mound, but the day length count doesn't start until after germination. Once matured and producing fruit, the plants will be able to tolerate a few light frosts until the hard frosts begin around late October.
You will need a lot of space. Vining pumpkins need up to 100 square feet per hill. We've had vines grow through the garden fence and well into the yard even though we thought they had plenty of room.
When the plants start to flower, they will depend on bees for pollination. If you use insecticides to keep the squash bugs away, you may be killing the bees as well. This adds up to no pollination and no pumpkins.
To combat squash bugs, which look a lot like stink bugs, regularly check the undersides of leaves for egg clusters. Destroy the eggs before they hatch. You have to be diligent because several generations of squash bugs can be on a plant at the same time. The adult insects overwinter in the garden soil and begin to deposit their eggs in early summer.
Harvest pumpkins when they are deep orange, unless you are planting Lumina, which are white. Cut them carefully from the vines leaving about 3 or 4 inches of stem attached. The vines can be prickly, so wear gloves.