Plants such as dog vomit slime mold and strangler figs — charmers, to be sure! — start to lose their WOW factor after 11 Howl-O-Screams.
At least, for the gardeners in Busch Gardens' horticulture department.
What to do that's different? How can the plant wizards help create a new experience for fans who return to the ghoulish fall event year after year?
"My people look at these and go, 'Wow, these are so cool!,' " says Joe Parr, the park's director of horticulture. "If these folks, who've seen just about everything, are saying that, we know guests will look at them the same way."
Oh no, these are not the orange jack-o'-lanterns you pick up at the Boy Scouts fundraiser! These fruits (yup, they're fruits) are blue and wart-covered; smooth, seafoam waxlike sculptures; have shapes that inspire names like Fairytale Musque de Provence.
"Every once in a while, I think I've done everything with plants. Then I find something I've never heard of and I go," says Joe. "A couple years ago, I happened upon the term 'heirloom pumpkins.' I'd never heard of them! I just had to try them."
In the past, he'd ordered containers of standard orange pumpkins to add to the fall atmosphere during Howl-O-Scream. Last year, he looked for the heirloom varieties he'd read about. He couldn't find them.
"So we planted seeds," he says. "It was a disaster."
The area where they planted had poor air circulation and there was a lot of rain that spring. The pumpkin patch became yet another ghastly graveyard.
This year, Joe turned an overflow employee parking lot into a garden. The large, sandy area sits in full sun. He and his staff covered it with mulch and let the cars park — grinding the mulch into the sand. Then they shooed away the cars and dumped 18 inches of park-generated compost — animal manure and plant waste — on top of it.
"We spent $20 on seeds," he says. "When the leaves died back (in June) we could see how many we had. There was a sea of pumpkins! Every variety worked. That surprised me to no end!"
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It took some effort but, yes, you can try this at home. Joe says it's essential to plant pumpkins in an area with really good air circulation to reduce the risk of disease. Micro-irrigation was key, he says.
"The plants get watered at the roots, so the leaves stay dry," he says.
Wet leaves invite disease.
He planted his seeds Feb. 3. By June, when the leaves and vines start dying, it's time to harvest. Most of the gourds will be fine if they're stored in a cool, dry place till fall, although you might lose a few.
As for those bizarre plants — like dog vomit slime, snotweed and walking trees — sure, they're still good for turning heads. Joe's working on a book about them, so we'll all soon have the information we need to send our visitors screaming though our gardens.
In the meantime, I might just scare up some freaky gourds.
Penny Carnathan can be reached at email@example.com. Find more garden stories at www.digginfladirt.com or join in the local gardening chat on Facebook. Look for Diggin Florida Dirt.