HAGERSTOWN - The day's press run was approaching, and a photograph of a giant fungus was due at the newsroom at any minute. Would it truly be a giant among fungi or just another pale fungoid imitation?
"I'm waiting on the photo right now," says Bob Fleenor, an editor at the Daily Mail in Hagerstown. His voice was not quivering with excitement. At his post, Fleenor has seen his share of turtle- or bunny-shaped vegetables carted into the newspaper, accompanied by sheepish gardeners who strain to smile for the camera.
"I always suspect people go to Southern states and buy those animal molds and shape it around their vegetables," Fleenor says.
He doesn't really mean it. But he's a newspaper man, and we all know they can get mighty suspicious after they've seen their 50th duck-shaped radish. Red flags go up.
But that's the price of publishing "Garden Oddities." The Daily Mail's long-standing feature is not so odd, really. The hometown newspaper is just one of many small newspapers throughout the country that regularly publish show-and-tell photographs of people with their vegetables. Not just small newspapers, either. In 1991, The Sun proudly published on its front page a photograph of a Millersville-grown eggplant that resembled Bob Hope and Richard Nixon.
With this summer's rainy weather, there's been a bumper crop of unusually large vegetables - meaning boffo newspaper pics of mutant parsnips, radishes and the old standby, potatoes. There's Emily Cowgill, 5, of Greencastle, Pa., pictured in the Aug. 17 Daily Mail, holding a Northern Kennebec potato shaped like a duck - a featherless, faceless lump, but yes, there's a ducky resemblance. The Daily Mail sees many, many duck-shaped potatoes.
"We're still waiting for a duck that looks like a potato," says managing editor Tony Mulieri.
The giant fungus photograph finally appears on Fleenor's desk in the newsroom. Basil and Eleanor Grossnickle of Myersville found the fungus growing on a walnut stump in their yard. (Is "Basil" a great first name for a gardener or what?)
The picture is stunning in its way. Looks like a moldy, parasitic condominium. Or like a fat, weird flower. Or coral. A Rorschach test might be required.
Hagerstown's afternoon paper has been around for 173 years, and there's no telling how many hundreds of 22-inch cucumber or six-pound radish pictures have been committed to the written record of Washington County. Although readers occasionally write in to say enough with the weird vegetables, the future of "Garden Oddities" is secure.
"For us," Mulieri says, "it's something fun for people to do in the summer. This is a farming community, and this is a way of sharing their heritage."
Around the Daily Mail newsroom there's one name that captures the essence and Zen of garden oddities - one name that brings a shiver of recognition and affection to the editors, writers and photographers (especially the photographers) - and that one name is H.L. "Shorty" Cosgrove, 84, of Hagerstown. When it comes to whopper vegetables, he's the dude.
"Someone said he must live over a Superfund area," Mulieri says.
Cosgrove makes frequent pilgrimages to the newspaper's downtown office from his rural home on the outskirts of town. The perennial gardener and retired truck driver, a man who never smiles when photographed with his obese white tomatoes or 5-pound beets, is a Daily Mail regular, a rock in the garden of oddities.
"We know Mr. Cosgrove is still alive when he comes in with his potatoes," Fleenor says.
One summer, the editors had to kindly tell Shorty to chill a bit. He was coming in too often. Other gardeners were feeling squeezed out. But they never told Cosgrove to stop coming in, nor would they ever.
It's not just about him showing off, say, a potato that unwittingly resembles him; these are social calls. Often, Cosgrove just wants to stop and talk, maybe show pictures of his two grown daughters and grandchildren.
"It's not too tough to stand there for a few minutes and give him some of your time," the managing editor says. "He can come in anytime."
A visit to Shorty Cosgrove's garden is the only natural next step. In his one-acre garden about 10 miles out of downtown Hagerstown, there's plenty of white tomatoes, lima beans, corn and banana peppers. The cucumbers are done for the year, and he'll soon have his share of pumpkins, as usual.
His wife, Mary, greets us first. Her directions were flawless. She's sitting out on the front porch of their white-with-green-shutters house, built 50 years ago by her husband. After canning peaches and pickles in her kitchen all day (in 16-quart cans), she needed to get off her feet. She gets up again to get her husband, who, nearly 55 years ago, asked her to marry him. That "yes" stuck real good.
In the garden
H.L. "Shorty" Cosgrove, as he's known all too well by Mail subscribers, leads the way to his garden out back. His tobacco aim is precise, the streams steering clear of visitors.
"Ever see banana peppers as big as these?"
He plucks four peppers for the road. He lifts a canopy of thick leaf to expose roly-poly white tomatoes. He yanks off five - another gift from his garden. It's clear that, when he wasn't driving a truck for a living, he spent every moment of remaining daylight in his garden. He was born and raised here, he says, and he could be talking about this very spot in this very row of corn.
There is no mystery to his gardening. "I like to see stuff grow," he says.
But what accounts for 6-pound radishes or 5-pound sweet potatoes? There's no secret about this, either. No secret crop recipe, just your usual horse manure, he says. What makes a second baby cucumber grow inside a larger cucumber? Who knows or cares?
The important thing is Cosgrove carts these garden oddities down to the newspaper to be photographed. This act of sharing is important.
"It just breaks the monotony, you know?," he says. "Gives you some good humor."
It's also a bit of friendly competition.
Cosgrove was ready to get his picture taken with his 17-pound cabbage - a real beast - but he heard about two boys from around here who also have a 17-pound cabbage they want photographed. The older farmer withdrew his cabbage from consideration.
"Where's that double peach?" Cosgrove asks his wife. He wants to take the double peach (two fruits that share one stem) to the newspaper.
"It's in my belly," his wife replies.
"I guess we won't see that anymore," he observes.
But there's always more from where that peach came from. And when he finds it, Cosgrove might just haul it over to the local newspaper.
People always tell him they saw his picture in the paper. He likes that. It's a kick, what he calls good humor.
Now if only he could once smile for a photograph. He always looks on the grim side. How can you not smile while holding a cucumber that has another cucumber growing inside it?
"That's just it," Shorty Cosgrove says. "I just can't take a good picture."