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Elephant Man has been replaced by the elephant pumpkin.
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
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.
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
- 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.