May 21, 2010
Happy Accident Leads to Designer Pumpkins

Ten years ago, Bob Koenders saw two intruders on his farm in Armada, Mich. Normally, he would have eliminated them and the threat they posed, but he decided to let them live. He’s glad he did.

The “intruders” were two vining plants growing on the banks of a drainage ditch. Bob figured they were “volunteer” pumpkins from the previous year’s crop, somehow thriving amidst the native plants. He wasn’t sure how they got there. They were nowhere near his pumpkin fields. Probably, some of his teenage employees had been screwing around, throwing excess pumpkins at each other on the way to dumping them in the nearby woods.

However they got there, Bob had never seen anything quite like the two plants – and he was a bit concerned. Such intruders could become unintentional host plants for invasive pests. Common knowledge told him to spray them with Roundup and be done with it, but part of him respected their determination to survive. He was busy with his cut sunflower harvest, anyway, so he decided to spray them later.

A couple of weeks went by, and as they kept growing it became more and more obvious to Bob and his field crop manager that the intruders weren’t pumpkin plants – exactly. They were some sort of cross between carving pumpkins and winter squash – something no human would have deliberately planted, but the result of cross-pollination by bees.

The most remarkable part of the strange plants might have been their newly ripened fruit: Dark green (like an acorn squash) and bright orange (like a jack-o-lantern), but with contrasting designs and patterns.

Not surprisingly, Bob decided to let the plants live.

The different shapes and coloration of the fruit were so intriguing, he decided to display some at his roadside stand. His farm, The Backyard Bouquet Farm, is on a busy road in southeast Michigan, not too far north of metropolitan Detroit, and for a long time it was a popular stop for people buying cut flowers and carving pumpkins.

Customers loved the varied shapes and weird coloring of Bob’s new “pumpkins,” though they weren’t for sale yet. He saw the potential of the fruit and started breeding – deliberately – for the genetic traits his customers so admired (he has his own honeybees). After a few years he was ready to start selling them. He even came up with a name: Bob’s Designer Pumpkins.

Now 57, Bob grew up on a small vegetable farm in southeast Michigan. He got hooked on growing flowers and eventually went to Michigan State University, where he graduated in 1979 with a degree in agronomy.

He became an independent agriculture consultant affiliated with Brookside Farms Laboratory Association. In roughly three decades of consulting, he tested about 250,000 acres of soil – a valuable learning experience.

“I solved a lot of problems for growers in this region,” he said.

He purchased what became known as The Backyard Bouquet Farm shortly after graduating from college. After getting his soil in shape (extremely fertile soil, thanks to an ancient lakebed), he started growing pumpkins and specialty cut flowers.

Growing flowers and designer pumpkin seeds is now Bob’s full-time endeavor. He and his wife, Judy, stopped direct-marketing pumpkins last year, though they still sell flowers from a self-serve cart in front of their house, and he still sells a few designer pumpkins at local farmers’ markets. He used to create elaborate displays of pumpkins, gourds and flowers every fall for customers’ enjoyment, but he stopped doing that once he decided to stop growing traditional pumpkins.

Bob stopped growing traditional pumpkins because he didn’t want to contaminate the gene pool of his designer pumpkins. It took him years to isolate the dominant traits that make his specialty pumpkins so popular, and he didn’t want to risk any unwanted cross-pollination. His designer pumpkins have proven much more popular than any traditional varieties he has grown.

Bob has refined his growing methods for the designer pumpkins. Chemical herbicides have largely been replaced with 4-foot tall annual rye grass that’s sown thickly ahead of spring planting. The rye is rolled flat, creating a natural straw mulch. Pumpkin seed is planted in narrow strips in between 10-foot-wide mulch strips. Bob gets good weed control and other benefits from using these techniques.

Seed sales of Bob’s Designer Pumpkins are doing well. Growers and home gardeners alike want them. Bob sells them direct to nearby farms, including Miller’s Big Red Apple Orchard and Westview Orchards, popular farm markets in the area. He also sold 30,000 seeds to Kitchen Garden Seeds this year, a mail-order company for urban gardeners.

But Bob is taking his time with it all. He doesn’t want to get too big; he wants to get a decent value for his crop. And he still loves telling the story of the two intruders that ended up changing the way he does business. In fact, he’d like to turn it into a children’s story – though it’s a story adults can enjoy, too.

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