At the Huntsville Botanical Garden, a medley of vibrant orange, gold, cream, gray-blue and green pumpkins aren’t just fruits of labor for farmer Jeremy Calvert.
They’re an artistic medium for a slew of creative volunteers who eagerly transforms from traditional fall vegetables into 3-D masterpieces. Past handiwork resulted in a hulking dragon with sweeping wings, a watering can spewing a waterfall of gourds and a massive star.
“It’s always interesting to see what the gardeners come up with,” said Calvert, who grows about 15 acres of pumpkins on his Cullman County farm. “I wouldn’t call myself an artsy person, so growing a crop for art instead of food has taken a change in mindset.”
After attempting to produce their own pumpkins for several seasons, Huntsville Botanical Garden Director of Horticulture Niki Sothers turned to a professional. She formed a pumpkin partnership with Calvert four years ago through the Food Farm Collaborative.
This year, thousands of visitors to the garden’s autumnal display will see pumpkins become giant, magical mushrooms. The pumpkins, grown just 65 miles south of Huntsville in Bremen, will also accent a damselfly topiary attraction and photo space. A 1949 Ford tractor and wooden wagon, along with over 500 mums, complement the exhibit.
“We know that not every person who comes to the garden is interested in flowers,” Sothers said. “Our goal is to get people outside. If they come see the pumpkin sculpture, see a little bit of a garden and enjoy both, we know we’re making people happy.”
The process begins in January, when Sothers selects pumpkin varieties perfect for the year’s holiday vision. By summer, over 20 types of seeds are in the ground for what Calvert said is a challenging crop.
“Our summers are too hot to easily grow pumpkins. Our fall doesn’t last long and doesn’t quickly cool off, so there are lots of challenges,” he said, citing issues such as mildew and insect pressure.
He said growing pumpkins for the botanical garden takes a more flexible approach than wholesale marketing.
“If you’re selling to a wholesaler and the product doesn’t turn out like it was supposed to, there’s nothing you can do about it,” Calvert said. “With the botanical garden, it’s a more mellow experience. Because it’s art, they can work with just about anything we grow.”
Calvert and a passel of workers pick and pack the pumpkins, which are delivered to Huntsville. Volunteers like Steve Kennamer help the sculpture come to life.
“You have in your mind what you hope the piece will be,” said Kennamer, who’s volunteered at the garden over 10 years. “It’s great to see the work and effort become a reality that people from all over see and enjoy.”
Kennamer’s creative insight helped push the pumpkins — initially an exhibit to accompany the popular Scarecrow Trail — into its annual, 3-D art form.
For last year’s dragon display, they repurposed a hay bale art frame. The steel rebar was welded and covered with two layers of wire. Volunteers spent more than 150 hours over four days wiring 1,000-plus pumpkins to the frame.
Assorted sizes and shapes of pumpkins dictate placement. Smaller pumpkins filled in the dragon’s neck and legs, while larger pumpkins covered the underbelly.
Sothers said the fall display, open through November, is one of many holiday-centric displays the 30-year-old garden incorporates, such as the winter Galaxy of Lights.
The pumpkin display is open in October, Monday—Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m.—6 p.m. Children under 2 get in free. Adult admission is $14; admission for military personnel, students and seniors is $12.
Calvert said working with the garden is an easy, joyful experience and allowed him to grow agricultural awareness.
“I want people to realize someone had to plant a seed and take care of a plant,” he said. “It’s also taken years of planning to have the land to grow these pumpkins.”
Calvert sells pumpkins at his store in Dodge City 3 miles off Interstate 65 and at the Walker County Farmers Market. Follow J. Calvert Farms on Facebook or visit hsvbg.org. for more info