The N.C. State Fair showcases a variety of fruits and vegetables from across the state each year. The stars of the show; however, are the giant pumpkins and watermelons.
Brandon Huber, a North Carolina State University doctoral student, has always been fascinated by plants, especially those that can grow really large. The Philadelphia native has grown competition-quality giant pumpkins for ten years now, adding watermelons to his agenda once moving to North Carolina.
Over the years, Huber has managed to produce several impressive giants. Huber’s largest pumpkin weighed in at 667 pounds, while his largest watermelon was 170 pounds. Huber’s numbers are impressive, but he explained that the record-holders grow giants much larger.
“Our state record for giant pumpkins last year was set by Danny Vester at 1,506.5 pounds, but if you look up north, the records are over a ton.”
So what makes these fruits so large? Huber says it’s mostly due to genetics.
“We cross-pollinate only the biggest pumpkins together. So, in a way, not only have we learned a lot more about how to perfect the growing of them, but we’ve also evolved the genetics a bit to the point where the pumpkins are growing to be a ton. We keep on selecting seeds from the biggest of the biggest, and surprisingly, their size continues to increase.”
Along with their special genetics, the giants require extra care to prosper. Unlike the average-sized pumpkin, the giants outgrow their leaves, requiring a source of man-made shade. Pumpkin growers must also be prepared to handle disease and pests, along with animals that may find the fruit enticing.
The growers follow a very strict timeline when it comes to producing giant fruits, beginning their journey in late April. Huber said the seed is planted in late April or early May, spending only about one week in a container kept indoors before it is planted in a field. During June, the vines begin to rapidly grow, some growing up to 18 inches per day. A female flower is chosen to be pollinated by the grower in July. Following pollination, the plant enters fruit-growth mode, growing throughout July, August, and September. About 100 days after the initial pollination, the fruit will stop growing, allowing growers to showcase their newly grown giants at the State Fair in mid-October.
For those interested in growing giants for themselves, Huber suggests joining one of the many niche communities available across the country for giant fruit growers. With a variety of Facebook groups and forums available, newcomers can learn tips and tricks from the professionals. Huber says there is also an annual meeting held for growers, where guest speakers give tips, networking takes place, and the seeds of former giants are shared with those in attendance.
“We always need new growers. We get excited when we see new growers show up, not only to get seed from us but also to weigh a fruit that has never competed before. That’s when I feel like they’re hooked for life.”
Since the plants are solely grown for competition purposes, COVID-19 had many growers question their decision to plant seeds this year. Huber and many of his friends were cautious but not deterred as growing these giants alone already comes with uncertainty.
“I was a little on the fence about planting, but knowing a lot of these growers, we’ll find a way to have a weigh-off if the State Fair doesn’t happen. We love the fair, but we could host a weigh-off with an official scale. It’ll happen one way or another.”
We look forward to seeing what impressive giants Huber will continue to grow in North Carolina while on his journey to become a horticulture professor.