Science and the spiritual meld for a veggie whisperer
by Charles Upchurch
Danny Vester died in 2004. That makes his world record cantaloupe, grown last year in his garden in Macedonia, N.C., pretty remarkable. Not that a 65.9-pound cantaloupe isn’t an astounding feat on its own. The Guinness Book of World Records has verified Vester’s mammoth fruit as the biggest cantaloupe ever weighed on planet Earth. That’s impressive, any way you slice it.
But his pumpkins are noteworthy, too: The 64-year-old owns three North Carolina state records, the largest topping 1,400 pounds. He also grows big watermelons, turnips, mustard plants and anything else he can cultivate from seeds with the right genetic codes.
Vester is part of an international community of growers specializing in giant produce. Record breakers. They connect online, sharing tips and pictures and becoming friends. Seeds with proven genetic pedigrees are mailed around the world. Vester’s state record pumpkins had already given him street cred, but the world record cantaloupe has lifted him to celebrity status. “I won’t sell seeds,” he says, “but if someone sends me an envelope, I’ll send them some—only on the condition that if they grow something big, they’ll share those seeds with others.”
He’s a modern-day Johnny Appleseed gone global, sharing his secrets for the care and cultivation of super-sized fruits and vegetables, of soil science and the balance of calcium, magnesium and iron, how to read leaves and learn their language, the effects of humidity, temperature and sunlight, the biology of cell growth and the life cycle spectrum, root to vine, flower to fruit.
With his world-record cantaloupe, Vester discovered a way to extend its life beyond the natural terminus, slowing the ripening stage by cooling the plant under the cover of leaves, resulting in a bigger, heavier fruit. It’s not all genetics; there is much about the secret life of plants that remains unknown.
Also unknown is the role that genetics or medical science or any other phenomena played in extending Vester’s life. The son of a tobacco share cropper in Nash County, Vester grew up playing baseball and working in the fields. “Me and that tobacco patch had a way of running into one another,” he says. After high school, he went to work for Carolina Telephone as a service technician, a job he held for almost three decades. He married, had three children, divorced.
When he was 49, he had a heart attack. At the hospital, the stent inserted into his aorta shattered. He remembers riding on a gurney, headed for open heart surgery, as a doctor began to saw him open. “I had to shut my left eye to keep out the spray,” he says. “Then he started punching me in the chest to bust my ribs. That was right before I went to the light.” It’s an experience he doesn’t often speak about. “I went from being in the most pain I’ve ever been in, to being in no pain and having the most peaceful feeling I’ve ever had. Not a word was spoken. Not a soul was seen. But I knew where I was at.”
Then, he says, he felt someone take him by the shoulders and turn him around. He had gone into surgery in the late afternoon. He woke up around 3 a.m. “The doctors told me, ‘We don’t know how you made it. We didn’t save you.’” Vester recovered, returned to work. Six months later he was diagnosed with Stage 3 throat cancer. “They suggested I get my affairs in order,” he says. Vester recounts six bouts of chemotherapy and 36 radiation treatments. He lived with a feeding tube for six months. But the treatments worked. The cancer died away, and Vester lived on. The experience he had during heart surgery had given him solace, and he was given opportunities to comfort other cancer patients with his personal story. “When I died, it was the most wonderful feeling I could have ever imagined,” Vester says. “I went from thinking, I can’t die, I can’t die, to feeling like, this is perfect—the way it’s supposed to be. After that, nothing can really frighten you.”
“I always wondered who turned me around; I was happy where I was at. Anyone who says they’ve gone to the light and fought to get back hasn’t been there.”
After his recovery, Vester’s gardening got serious. He was able to spend time with his plants, to nurture and attend to them, tuning in to their rhythms and cues. He has a pumpkin he’s growing that sits on a scale, with a camera set up to take pictures every 15 minutes tracking weight gain with time stamps. His new green house has a CO2 pump to boost the parts per million and turbocharge the metabolic pathways. He’s shooting to break 2,000 pounds. But there’s no hurry. As Vester likes to say, “Everything will work out.” At night, he’ll chat with friends in Russia, Great Britain or Germany about phosphorus and amino acids. In the morning, he’ll sit in his garden with a cup of coffee. He’ll read leaves, note his observations and find ways to extend life just a little bit longer.