Most of the

exhibits for this year’s National Giant Vegetable Championship, held at Shepton

Mallet, could crush a man. A rolling marrow on the loose is potentially lethal

and even a dropped onion could break your foot. The giant pumpkins are so heavy

they are sometimes grown on pallets so they can be fork-lifted out of the

vegetable patch. The growers get frightfully excited as these squat, orange

boulders are gingerly hoisted off trucks on to flat-bed scales. The judges, pencils

behind ears, shout out the weight. The champion pumpkin in 2009 – not a

particularly brilliant year – weighed in at a handsome 670lb (that’s almost

48st), still a long way off the world record of 1,689lb. But not bad for an August show, when other pumpkins are still putting on weight for similar shows later in the season.

Everything in this competition is from Planet

Vast. There are massive marrows that, stuffed and baked, could feed two rugby

teams; and clumps of celery that would fill a coal sack. There are cabbages

weighing up to 9st and which you couldn’t fit into a small car. The swedes are

all but unrecognisable – mauve horrors spouting fleshy, pendulous excrescences.

Huge cucumbers are grown in ladies’ tights to prevent them snapping under their

own weight. The comedy carrots have yards of long, wispy roots and are grown in

drainpipes full of vermiculite. Just getting the produce to the show undamaged

takes military planning and care. In a game that’s mostly about weight, loss of

a leaf can mean the difference between winning and losing.

The giant veg stand at the Royal Bath &

West Showground is the one that everyone wants to see. Forget the exhibition

displays – shiny tomatoes, perfectly polished spuds, immaculately trussed

onions – laid out with loving care. The grass around the giant vegetables tells

its own story, it’s utterly worn away by crowds flocking to the stands. Instead

of Victorian human freak shows, these days we gawp at freak vegetables. The

Elephant Man has been replaced by the elephant pumpkin.

SUPER-SIZE SEEDS

These vegetables are grown by men – and they are

nearly all men, mostly retired – with an obsession. Welshman Ian Neale is

rightly proud of his championship swedes which he grew in a polytunnel near

Chepstow. “I’ve been trying to break the world record for eight years. Last

year they all went rotten but this year I’ve got the right medicine to stop

that,” he says, having succeeded with a brute of more than 81lb. Of all the

vegetables, the malformed swedes are the ugliest. They make even celeriac look

like Kate Moss. “Listen, we all start getting knobbly as we get old,” he says

in their defence. “The secret is getting hold of the right seed and being

prepared to dedicate your life to the cause.”

You do hear stories of vegetable nobbling, with

men sleeping in their gardens to protect prize leeks from acts of Wallace and

Gromit-style sabotage. But the world of giant vegetable growers is not like

that. No acid is thrown on pumpkins, and rabbits are not let loose on growing show

carrots. They are fiercely competitive but also laugh a lot and send each other

seeds, tips and DVDs. They are all well up on the relevant Guinness Book of Records

section. Records in the giant vegetable arena tend to last about five minutes.

“It’s all very friendly,” says Clive Bevan. “We

are one big family. I know it’s a competition but it isn’t cutthroat, it’s a

good laugh. We help each other unload and load back up.” Indeed, around the

judges’ table the evening before the show opens there’s a lot of banter amid

the incessant warning

beep of a fork-lift truck. Clive’s van is chocka with

super-size seeds that he sells for his own amusement. He hand pollinates all

his vegetables to ensure purity.

“It’s vital to have the right seed,” says

Clive. “I go round the country giving talks on the stuff and I say you will

never make a Derby winner from a donkey on Brighton beach. Breeding is

everything. It’s about weight. I always say it doesn’t matter if it’s as ugly

as your mother-in-law. As long as it weighs enough, it goes on the show bench.”

He is typical in his passion for cultivation, having started at the age of

eight when he had a miniature garden.

For 30 years he grew vegetables for the Prison

Service. “I was gardens manager at Wellingborough Prison, where we grew giant

vegetables. Security used to come down when we went through the main gateway to

make sure we hadn’t got any prisoners inside hollowed-out pumpkins,” he adds.

“People can’t believe how big things get. I once grew a cabbage so big I couldn’t

get it through the garden gate, it had to come over the roof of my house using

a crane. We used to give the vegetables to charities for guess the weight

competitions and so on. There’s a myth you can’t eat the big vegetables.

However, if you cut the cabbages into enough pieces they will do all your

neighbours.”

As anyone on the game will tell you, the

general rule with giant vegetables is to give them plenty of room. Pumpkins

require as much as 600sq ft of space and vast amounts of compost. They take six

to eight weeks to grow and can change from golf ball to football size in 24

hours or on a warm night. You need bags of ingenuity and fertiliser and up to

100 gallons of water per day. One judge told me that some growers talk to their

vege-tables, though they generally don’t admit to it. It is rumoured that one

chap Up North plays Glenn Miller to his onions.

PUMPKIN BOATS

The boys who really specialise in monster pumpkins do

not all attend the Royal Bath & West; they tend to exhibit later in the

year when their pumpkins are even bigger. Ian and Mark Paton from Hampshire are

multi-European record holders. They are hoping to break the world record with

one of the six pumpkins they are growing indoors. They mean business. “We want

the world record back in this country where it belongs,” says Ian. They have a

novelty use for the pumpkins once weighed – they halve and hollow them out

(presumably with a chain saw), put a deck on top, fit with an outboard motor,

and ride them down the river at Lymington.

Peter Glazebrook is, without a doubt, the

greatest giant vegetable grower in Britain. He and his wife Mary come from

Newark, Nottinghamshire, where they cultivate colossal produce. A regular at

Shepton Mallet and every other show going, he has won hundreds of awards. He

holds world records for the longest beetroot (21ft) and the heaviest parsnip

(13.9lb). Last year he won heaviest onion at the World Onion and Leek

Championship in Cumbria, and this year he plans to surpass his record-breaking

onion of 14lb 10oz, aiming to beat the all-time record of 16lb 8oz. “I’d like

to grow a really heavy onion – that’s my goal now,” says Peter. “It’s hard work

and no holidays. You are dependent on the weather and some people have

air-conditioned greenhouses. I don’t.” The real secret? “I wish I knew,” he

says modestly. Take no notice. He knows.

How to grow a whopper

Champion grower Ross Keightley’s 10 top tips

  • It is impossible to grow giants from ordinary seeds. Special seeds are

    widely available through the internet. Nobody minds sharing, so if you attend a

    show ask a grower for some seeds.
  • Know what is in your garden with regards to soil. Buy a test kit and

    make sure you have the right balance of minerals and trace elements.
  • Spring is when you test your soil to see what it needs in order to get

    your vegetables off to a good start.
  • Put cow manure on your soil over the winter. It should be a year old,

    dark, and sweet smelling. Adjust with lime or acid matter to the desired level.
  • Plants like plenty of compost in order that roots can grow freely. Big

    roots generally mean big plants.
  • Feed them with a good all-round fertiliser with equal parts of

    nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Little and often is the key. Do not

    overfeed.
  • Too much or too little watering spells death. Too much is a common

    mistake as it starves the plant of vital oxygen.
  • Make sure you prune unnecessary foliage to ensure the plant’s energy

    goes into growing that big one.
  • Forget about holidays. Giving the correct feed, pesticide or fungicide

    when a plant needs it is paramount.
  • Mother Nature is unpredictable, so pollinate

    the plants with a paintbrush.