By Aug. 22, Danny Vester’s prize pumpkin had grown to the size of a small boulder, so he loaded it onto a forklift and gently dropped it in the bed of his 4x4 pickup, where it fit with only a half-inch to spare.
Vester then drove south to a pumpkin weigh-off in Alabama, his treasure secured in a nest of hay. Passing drivers snapped pictures, waved arms and honked horns, so distracted by the moon-sized fruit that they wouldn’t let him change lanes, forcing Vester to tote his giant gourd through the middle of Atlanta.
“Something about a big pumpkin on the back of a pickup truck will make people happy,” said Vester, 60.
He came back with an official North Carolina record that made the drive worthwhile: a 1,296-pound pumpkin, heavier than a baby elephant. Vester named his champion “Sammy.”
And as you read this, a larger beast grows by 30 pounds a day in Vester’s Nash County pumpkin patch, ready to put its little brother to shame.
“This is my next baby here,” he said, adjusting the handmade tarp-tent that shades it. “As you can see, it’s not small by no means.”
Vester’s yellow-orange monsters signal the beginning of competitive pumpkin season, which is reaching new heights in North Carolina.
This year, for the first time, the State Fair will host a weigh-off sanctioned by the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, a worldwide group that sets standards for extreme gardening.
“It’s one of those hobbies kind of like golf,” said Susie Zuerner, North Carolina’s representative to the GPC. “When you get into it, you get hooked and you can’t wait.”
The Yadkin Valley Pumpkin Festival in Elkin judges gourd girth on the fourth Saturday of every September, a must-attend event for the big boys of the craft.
But until now, the State Fair just hasn’t had space for a 1,000-pound fruit pageant.
“Think about it,” said April Blazich, the superintendent of horticulture competitions. “The animals aren’t going to give up space. The bees aren’t going to give up space. It’s going to be a major juggling act.”
Vester’s biggie ripened too early for either of those competitions, and his next-in-line won’t last long enough for the fair. But he’s got a third lined up behind both of them, and if he doesn’t break his own record, he knows folks who will.
A telephone company retiree, Vester planted his first-ever giant pumpkins this spring. “Something to do,” he said. “If I get too tired out here, I can take a nap.”
Wind, rain and a mouse
He started his big winner indoors in March, moved it outdoors in April and pollinated in June. He cut the stump when it grew diseased after a few weeks, then raised his entire half-ton pumpkin off the leaf roots. He raised it off the ground on plywood to keep the bottom dry and spread fine, quick-draining sand underneath.
Raising big-time gourds can consume a whole day. Vester sought counsel on bigpumpkins.com. He struggled with wind and rain. He added pesticides and fungicides. He battled cucumber beetles and a mouse that sought shelter underneath his darling fruit.
“God rest his soul,” Vester said of the vanquished rodent.
Sammy, named for a 10-year-old girl in Cameron who struggles with seizures, always fought back.
“Only thing that proves is I was good at following instructions,” Vester said. “Don’t have to know anything. Just have to know the guy that does.”
Chasing world record
In the beginning, all Vester wanted was to grow the biggest specimen ever presented at the Spring Hope Pumpkin Festival, which he’d heard was 469 pounds. Having far surpassed that modest goal, he now hopes that local growers can pool their garden wisdom and compete with the boys to the north, who boast longer daylight hours. The world record comes from Napa Valley in California, where a well-known competitor has pushed his pumpkins past 2,000 pounds.
Vester may need a bigger truck. But dreamers dream big, and the gourd gods provide.