Rhubarb, squash, other veggies pushing size limits

FARMINGTON – Richard Paul planted this year’s garden on Poverty Lane the same as he does every year, using seeds from the local Farmer’s Union and a small amount of fertilizer.

But as he stood underneath towering stalks of who-knows-what with a measuring tape Monday, staring skyward, it was obvious he got a whole lot more than he bargained for.

“I plant here every year,” he said, looking quizzically up at a purple-red stalk that looked nothing at all like the rhubarb chard he had planted mid-June.

“This is the first time this has ever happened in my life,” he said. And at 76, Paul has had a lot of experience with gardens.

The last of 12 children, he said he grew up in relative poverty. For his family, gardening was not just a hobby, it was dinner.

He walked the land Monday with his 6-year-old granddaughter, Sierra Kempton, pointing out odd things along the way.

“Grandpa, you’re doing a good job growing the garden this year,” Sierra said with a shy smile as he measured a 10-foot stalk of corn.

This summer, he not only has tall, odd-looking red plants to contend with, he also has mammoth stalks of corn, bearing three to five ears each. His patch of spaghetti squash grows so wildly it’s climbing up the corn, to be found more often than not hanging from a stalk, dangling under a large golden ear.

Near the towering attempt at rhubarb chard, his zucchini sports leaves the size of a toddler’s body, flowers the size of his head, and fruit longer than a computer keyboard. His pickling cukes are too big to pickle – they lie, listless, on the dirt, far too wide to make it into any canning jar. His tomato plants, purchased for pennies in June because they were on the verge of death, have grown so immense they resemble a hedgerow.

And the white-flowered weeds wending their way between squash, rhubarb, tomatoes and the strange stalks come back almost as soon as he tears them up, Paul said.

“This is crazier than a bed bug!” Paul said. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

The red stalks themselves – 9 feet tall, at the tallest – have some relatively diminutive regular-looking rhubarb chard growing at their bases, Paul pointed out. Regularly spaced, they’re still in the row he set out when he placed the Farmer’s Union seeds on the plot in June.

After surviving a brain tumor, kidney cancer, a perforated ulcer, rheumatic fever, mid-ear sores, poisoned joints, and near-electrocution – among other things – Paul calls himself the seventh wonder of the world. “If something strange is going to happen,” he said Monday, “it usually happens to me.”

But still, he wonders what those red stalks are, and why his garden is growing with such abandon this year, he said. He lives near the site of the old Farmington dump, but said his garden has grown normally until this year.

A University of Maine Extension Office representative sent a sample of a big purple leaf to Orono to get it tested, according to the local extension office. Paul said the official thinks it’s amaranth, a plant originally cultivated by the Aztecs. The extension official who tested the plant is on vacation this week, according to the Farmington office.

Regardless of what’s causing the growth spurt, Paul said he’s in for a prolific summer. He and his wife, Carolyn, have feasted many a night on gargantuan string beans and mammoth spaghetti squashes, he said, and it’s only mid-August.

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