Houston sets state record with 1,340-pound pumpkin
By SEAN CLOUGHERTY
DOSWELL, Va. (Sept. 29, 2015) — Going by sight, the winner of the Virginia Giant Pumpkin Contest during the State Fair of Virginia was basically a forgone conclusion.
The entry from Hank Houston, last year’s winner and state record holder, had it in the bag. All that was left was to know the actual weight.
Leading up to the Sept. 26 weigh-in at Meadow Event Park, Houston, a carpenter from Thornburg, said he hoped it would be more than 1,400 pounds but, “I hate to even say that” for fear of a jinx.
The last of 15 giant pumpkins to be weighed in the contest, Houston’s monster registered 1,340.7 pounds on the scale, besting his personal best of last year’s 1,203 pounder and making a new state record.
“I’m happy,” he said with a wide grin. “You don’t want to be greedy.”
Second place pumpkin went to Barry Shrum of Woodstock, Va., with a 731.8-pound entry and third place went to Ricky Atkins who had a 644.8 pound pumpkin.
Starting with five plants in his patch in early May, a few mishaps during the growing season whittled his bounty down to two giants.
The pumpkin he brought to the fair started as a seed from a 1,969-pound pumpkin grown last year by New York grower Karl Haist and hand-pollinated it with plant grown from his 1,203-pound winner last year.
Houston said his goal to start the season was to grow one more than 1,000 pounds again and he beat that in mid-August.
“God blessed us with good weather again,” he said. “I was thinking I’d have a couple of 1,500 pounders but it’s a cruel sport. If you push them too hard you can overdo it.”
The contest was held by the Virginia Giant Vegetable Growers Association, a fairly small but tight-knit group of about 20 members, growing everything from radishes to tomatoes as big as they can though giant pumpkins and watermelons get the most attention with an official state competition.
Davis Wells of Mechanicsville, Va., grew the heaviest watermelon at 161.12 pounds, regaining the title he held for seven years before J.R. Brent of Lancaster, Va., won last year with a 2,158.5 pound state record breaker.
Houston also entered a watermelon, which came in fourth at 92 pounds.
Houston, like other serious growers works at giant pumpkin growing year round, soil testing and preparing the patch leading up to planting and spends several hours a day in the patch once they get growing.
He hung a large shade cloth over the a patch which he said was overall really helpful in keeping moisture in the ground longer though he had to fight powdery mildew in the patch and cucumber beetles at times.
Mice can be big trouble as the pumpkins get large, too.
“The last three weeks are tough,” he said. “You’ve just got to love doing it.”
Along with giant pumpkins and watermelons this year, his first try with the fruit, and also tried his hand at growing the biggest he could in four other categories; squash, long gourd, field pumpkin, and tomato.
He said he planned to take those entries and another giant pumpkin to a weigh-in Pennsylvania last weekend.
Houston’s pumpkin and all the contest entries remained on display for the rest of the fair.
From there, the record-breaking pumpkin went to Homestead Hardware in Woodford, Va. as a thank you to the store for helping Houston haul it to the fairgrounds.
While thrilled with the pumpkin weight, Houston said he’s just as excited about trying giant watermelons again.
“Fourth place,” he said among a group of fellow growers. “That’s where I started with the pumpkins.”