A rat in the grass
(Image credit: Paul Grace Photography Somersham / Getty Images)

Holidays can bring out the competitive spirit, even a holiday like Halloween that's largely celebrated by kids. A few years ago, my neighbor and I entered into a bet - friendly at first but developing into a keen competition - as to which of us could raise the biggest pumpkin. She was betting on education; I put my money on experience. The day we set to determine who won was truly an unforgettable garden moment.

The Competitors

My neighbor is quite a formidable individual. She holds dual PhDs in horticulture and biochemistry and spent her storied career developing medicines from plants. Even now, two decades into retirement, she is considered an expert in her field. But she has never grown a garden.

I am a natural plant lover. I have no formal training in plant life but oodles of experience growing things. I've had gardens in Alaska, where I was born and raised; in Berkeley, where I went to law school; in France, where I wrote my novels; and now in San Francisco.

The Pumpkin Planting

We picked July 1 as planting day. Pumpkins require a long growing season, some as long as 100 days. Fortunately, San Francisco weather never dips below freezing so we didn't have to worry about frost-free days. We would weigh our pumpkins on October 15 and a winner would be declared.

I planted 12 seeds in a garden bed I enriched with organic compost. All of them sprouted, and I thinned out half. I knew that pumpkins loved rich soil, so I worked in manure during the summer. My pumpkins grew fast and soon were much larger than my neighbor's.

The Rat Problem - Do Rats Eat Pumpkins

Then I began to develop rodent issues - specifically rats in the garden. I woke up one morning and found that rats had eaten holes in two of my six pumpkins. I composted these and put netting over the others. However, in September, the rodents ate through the netting and attacked two more pumpkins. I installed a cage to protect the two remaining fruit.

I was happy to see that both my remaining pumpkins were larger than my neighbor's. She had installed a drip irrigation system that wasn't working optimally, so her pumpkins lagged behind in growth. By October 1, mine were still significantly larger than hers.

As time grew short, another disaster occurred. Raccoons removed the cage and they, or perhaps the rats, ate the heart out of yet another pumpkin. I protected the last one by building a mini greenhouse around it. The pumpkin had stopped growing by weigh day, October 15, but I thought it still had an edge over my neighbor's. One of her sons was an accountant and charged with weighing the fruit.

When you think that some giant pumpkins can grow to 1,500 pounds, ours were really nothing special. Mine was just big enough that I could just reach my arms around it and touch the tips of my fingers.

Everyone agreed that mine looked larger, so we decided to weigh the other one first. My neighbor's son lifted it to the scale and announced that it weighed 45 pounds. Then we went to my yard. By this time. I was quite confident of victory. I put my arms around my pumpkin and lifted it, but it didn't feel as heavy as I had thought. It almost felt like the pumpkin was hollowed out.

As I stood there perplexed, something dropped from the pumpkin. It was a rat and it ran away over my neighbor's toes! She screamed. Her son screamed. I screamed too, and dropped the fruit and it cracked open. Inside was, indeed, hollowed out and serving as the home to six rat pups. All six of them ran under the fence into my neighbor's yard as we screamed and laughed at the same time.

The only good news that came from this embarrassing garden moment was that my pumpkin, even eaten out, weighed more than my neighbor's, and I was awarded first prize in the contest. But it was definitely what you might call a hollow victory.

Teo Spengler

Teo Spengler has been gardening for 30 years. She is a docent at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Her passion is trees, 250 of which she has planted on her land in France.