Near a tent set up for tour members, Snyder was surrounded by two dozen growers in awe of his green thumb. “Is that leaf mulch one or two years old?” a club person asked.
“That’s last year’s, but I turn it four times,” he replied. The crowd gasped and murmured.
“You spray all your fertilizer on?” another asked. “You don’t run it through a drip line?”
“Nope. I spray it all.”
“What’s horticultural oil?”
“Baking soda and Joy dishwashing soap.”
“Is that safe to eat on zucchini?”
“All the farmers use it.”
A century ago, William Warnock fertilized his pumpkins with hen manure. Werner follows Warnock’s chicken-manure prescription, hauling out about 1,000 pounds every spring, but he’s more scientific. He rotates his pumpkin patch, growing sorghum in the summer in a patch he’s preparing for the next year. He plows under a winter crop of rye before planting his pumpkins. Both grasses have bacteria that pull nitrogen from the air and convert it to ammonia, enriching the soil. And as the vines creep along the bare ground in early summer, he scoops up a sandwich-bagful of dirt, plucks a few leaves and FedExes the material to John Taberna at Western Laboratories in Parma, Idaho. After Taberna told Werner that his pumpkins lacked magnesium and manganese, Werner began spraying them with a chelated fertilizer. Werner also adds his own microorganisms to the soil.
Scientists have long recognized the degree to which plants depend on microbes to obtain nutrients, but that knowledge has been applied only in limited ways in agriculture. In areas that have been devastated by wildfires or strip mining, some government agencies spray mycorrhizal fungi on seedlings or blend it into the soil to improve tree survival and growth. The practice broke into competitive pumpkin growing in 2005, when a Rhode Islander named Ron Wallace phoned Reforestation Technologies International, a Salinas, California, plant nutrient company, and asked to test its commercial mycorrhizal product. “I’ll give you 20 pounds, but if you win any prizes, I want bragging rights,” said company president Neil Anderson. Sure enough, Wallace went on to break the pumpkin world record in 2006, and Anderson began marketing Xtreme Gardening products a few years later, to which he recently added the nitrogen-fixing bacteria Azospirillum. “Bacteria are miniature fertilizer factories,” he says.