The State Fair of Virginia will hold its weigh-in for giant pumpkins and giant watermelons at noon on Sept. 24. The weigh-in is the culmination of labor-intensive gardening that earns bragging rights and blue ribbons for top competitors.
Last year Hank Houston’s giant pumpkin tipped the scales to win big. It weighed 1,340 pounds, earning Houston, from Spotsylvania County, a blue ribbon and setting a new State Fair record for a second consecutive year.
That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment for someone who has been growing giant pumpkins for only five years. Houston, a construction worker who raises the pumpkins as a hobby, keeps meticulous records of past years’ soil analyses, genetics and practices in an effort to increase the weight of his super-size harvest.
“I train the vines every day and am constantly battling new growth. Once it gets really hot, they grow like kudzu,” he said.
At the peak of the growing season, the pumpkins can pack on close to 36 pounds and drink 50 gallons of water a day. Powdery mildew is just one of many things that can go wrong in the 150 days it takes to produce the garden behemoths, but Houston said it’s worth it to see the smiles on people’s faces when they see the results.
In the world of competitive gardening, he finds camaraderie among other devotees like Davis Wells of Hanover County, who grows award-winning giant watermelons.
Wells has won the giant watermelon competition at the fair eight times in the past nine years. In 2015 his winning melon weighed 161.12 pounds.
“To grow a giant watermelon, you need good soil, good seed and good luck,” he said.