From onions as big as babies to pumpkins that weigh more than a car, it has been a record-breaking year for oversize veg. But what motivates someone to grow an 8-metre beetroot – and is skulduggery involved?
The pumpkins are as big as Cinderella’s carriage, and so heavy that a tractor is required to hoist them out of the earth. Immense, pockmarked marrows bulge from the ground like something from a phantasmagoric nightmare. Cucumbers soar to the height of a four-year-old. Onions bloat to the size of a head. You can have your giant vegetables in any size, as long as it is large, extra-large or extra-extra-large.
For Britain’s giant-vegetable growers, 2020 has been a vintage year. Three world records were set on this year’s Grow Showtour in September: the world’s heaviest red cabbage (31.6kg), the world’s longest salsify (5.6 metres) and the world’s longest beetroot (8.6 metres). This month, Ian and Stuart Paton, 59-year-old twins from Lymington in Hampshire, grew the UK’s heaviest-ever pumpkin, which weighed in at a monstrous 1,176.5kg.
Interest in giant vegetables swelled in lockdown as people spent more time in their gardens. “Our website crashed this year from the demand,” says Kevin Fortey, 42, a programme manager from Cwmbran in south Wales. “More people are trying it out now.” Fortey is the unofficial spokesperson for the giant-vegetable-growing community. He administers a popular Facebook group, and a website, dedicated to them. He once paraded an 86cm cucumber around the Serpentine in Hyde Park, London, on a pedalo for a Japanese TV channel, to raise awareness of the hobby. “I’m known as Mr Giant Veg,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.” During lockdown, Fortey sent out seed starter packs to the giant-vegetable curious and set up a WhatsApp group for growers.
“I know it’s a weird thing to get into,” says Tom Carre, 24, from Portsmouth. “I’ve had some funny comments from people on the allotment.” Carre started growing giant vegetables this year when we were all confined to our homes: his work as a sound technician dried up overnight in March when theatres and live music venues shut. “It has given me something to look forward to, as funny as that might sound,” Carre says. “It’s nice to have something to keep myself busy.” Carre has found quiet satisfaction in watching the fruits of his labour loom large from the earth – this year, he grew a 2-metre-tall leek and a swede twice the size of his head. “I feel very emotionally invested in them,” he says. “I did spend my entire summer looking after them.”
And yet, despite this year’s award-winning crop of giant vegetables, celebrations and exposure have been limited. Many of the events at which growers would normally exhibit their supersize wares have been cancelled, which means fewer people have been able to wonder at the extraordinary bounty. This year’s Grow Show tour – run by Canna, a producer of nutrients to aid plant growth – was a socially distanced replacement for the national giant vegetables championship, held every September in Malvern, Worcestershire. The annual autumn pumpkin festival in Netley, Hampshire, was cancelled, although a weigh-in was held instead. The Harrogate autumn flower show – the pre-eminent giant-onion show in the country – was also cancelled.
Fortey could not compete in the Canna roadshow, due to a local lockdown, so he fed his giant marrows to a pig. But it was not just any pig: it was Timmy the pig, famous for “miming” the lyrics to Michael Jackson’s Beat It on Britain’s Got Talent in 2010. (Timmy happens to live on a nearby farm.)
“It’s been difficult this year, with all the national shows being cancelled,” sighs Peter Glazebrook, 76, a retired surveyor from Newark in Nottinghamshire. Glazebrook is a legend in the giant-vegetable scene, having held 15 world records over a 29-year career, including for carrots, potatoes, onions, tomatoes and cauliflowers. He retired from pumpkin-growing 15 years ago, because they were too difficult to manage – pumpkins are the goliaths of the giant-vegetable world.
This year, Glazebrook lost his world record for the heaviest tomato to Douglas Smith, 42, who grew a 3.1kg tomato by suspending the fruit in a pair of tights. “I met him last year,” says Glazebrook of his adversary. “I realised he was going to be a problem. He knew how to grow big tomatoes. I’ve been following his progress on Facebook.” He adds, unconvincingly: “I’m pleased for him.”
Gerald Short spends two hours a day with his pumpkins … at night, he tucks them in with a duvet
What motivates someone to grow vegetables so enormous they would destroy the suspension in an average family car? “When I first saw giant vegetables, I thought the people who grew them must be absolutely nuts,” says Gerald Short, 52, a record-company owner from Watlington in Oxfordshire. “What are they doing growing these huge things? But then something got stuck in the nerdy side of me.” Short has done quite the about-turn: this year, he grew a 706kg pumpkin, setting an Oxfordshire record. The pumpkin was so heavy that Short had to use a tractor to get it out of his allotment and hire a lorry to transport it. “I’m probably the biggest amateur grower on the allotment scene,” he says.
The appeal of growing these beasts is not hard to understand. Only the truly joyless would struggle to summon a smile at the sight of a marrow as big as a lawn mower or a cabbage as wide as a double bed. Giant-vegetable-growing is as life-affirmingly ridiculous as it is gloriously escapist. Plus, it is a technical challenge. “You can grow them bigger every year, so you’re always improving,” says Short. Fortey sees it more like a sport than a hobby. “We’re like athletes, absolutely,” he says. “We’re all aiming to get the world record. Usain Bolt runs the world’s fastest 100 metres and we’re aspiring to get the longest vegetables.”
Luckily, most growers are in on the joke and embrace the silliness of it all: Facebook groups for giant-vegetable growers are full of pictures of men – they are almost always men – cradling onions like babies or wielding carrots like lightsabers. These are vaudeville images, as bawdy as a seaside postcard and just as absurd. In these anxious, insecure, fearful times, why not retreat from the horrors of a global pandemic by contemplating images of middle-aged men lying like Burt Reynolds in his Cosmopolitan centrefold besides engorged courgettes?
Of course, the turnip in the room is that, well, this is all a bit phallic. “It’s a macho thing, isn’t it?” says Fortey. “Who can grow the biggest vegetable?” Fortey does his best to recruit female growers, often sending them seeds in the post. Jenna Brown, a 40-year-old landlord from Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, is a rare woman in the scene. Every year, she grows giant pumpkins in her garden, carves them out with a chainsaw, puts her children inside and takes photos. “You see these older guys standing there holding a metre-long cucumber,” says Brown. “There are so many things you want to say, but they’re all inappropriate. They take it really seriously. It’s like: ‘Hey, look at the size of my turnip. Doesn’t this make me look manly?’
But giant-vegetable-growing is about more than machismo; it requires the disciplined devotion of a medieval monk. “There’s something therapeutic about it,” says Carre. “You’re trying to keep the vegetable growing, and push it further, and wondering if you’ve done everything right. It’s like how I imagine nurturing a baby, almost.” Short spends two hours a day with his pumpkins, visiting them in the morning and again at night, when he tucks them in with a duvet, to alleviate any sudden temperature changes that might cause them to split.
On his Facebook group, Fortey troubleshoots the common mistakes that first-time growers make, such as overfeeding their crop or not supporting them properly: a metre-long cucumber will fall off the plant unless you rig up a supportive contraption. (Tights are commonly used.) Timing is everything. “Starting too early is a problem,” says Fortey. “People are keen to get their seeds in the ground in March, but some plants don’t get started until late April, May.” He tells me that the giant-vegetable scene has come on leaps and bounds in the past decade, as more people discover the hobby. As a result, world records are continually being set, as people refine their seed strains and their techniques, often using polytunnels and lamps to grow their crops.
Cheating is unusual, but not unheard-of. ‘They’re the lowest of the low,’ says Peter Glazebrook
The best giant-vegetable growers sublimate their egos to the will of the seasons. On a sunny August day, a giant pumpkin might put on 23kg a day in weight; if it is cold, this might be only 9kg. “You have to make do with the hand that you’re given,” Short says. “If the weather isn’t brilliant, you try to do something to offset that.” This summer was suboptimal for giant-vegetable-growing: it rained a lot in August, which can cause the vegetables to become waterlogged or even explode. “It’s been a tough, inclement year,” says Fortey.
The giant-vegetable scene’s tendrils are stretching all over the world: Fortey recently made contact with an embassy worker in Antarctica. “He’s growing vegetables under the ice in a shipping container,” he says. “I sent him some marrow and cucumber seeds. It’s pretty cool.” Fortey does all his outreach work for free: he is passionate about getting more people into giant-vegetable-growing, seeing it as a gateway drug into horticulture – for children in particular. “Horticulture isn’t really taught in secondary schools,” Fortey says. “They do it a bit in primary school, but then they stop.” He gave a giant cabbage to a school in Aberystwyth, west Wales, in 2017. “They had a science lesson, a maths lesson and a cooking lesson with it – and then they ate it,” he says.
Despite the fact that giant-vegetable growers compete with one another every autumn, it is a supportive community. “It’s really friendly,” says Brown. “On the Facebook groups, everyone is like: wow, amazing job!” The Paton twins – Short’s main rivals – give him advice when it comes to growing his pumpkins. “They help me out with tips and tricks,” Short says. “They’re world-class.”
This sense of camaraderie may be in part because, for a long time, giant-vegetable growers struggled to be taken seriously. At the main horticulture shows, vegetable growers compete in two categories: the “quality” vegetable categories and the giant-vegetable divisions. The quality-vegetable lot can be snobby about giant-vegetable growers. “I was one of those people a few years ago who wouldn’t have anything to do with giant veg,” says Medwyn Williams of the National Vegetable Society. “I thought they were bonkers! There are still a lot of guys who show quality veg who don’t consider it as anything difficult; they think it’s easy. But I’ve grown to understand it better and appreciate the effort they put into growing these things.”
Williams judged this year’s roadshow, which passed without incident and in the spirit of sportsmanship. (Every competitor this year, however, was male.) But the same cannot be said for previous years. Although cheating is unusual in the giant-vegetable community, it is not unheard-of: men can lose their morals when trying to grow the girthiest marrow in the room.
At the nationals 10 years ago, Glazebook witnessed a man trying to pass off a shop-bought cantaloupe melon as his own. (The residue from the price sticker gave him away.) In the 90s, people would sometimes inject vegetables with water to increase their weight. (Organisers brought in water-detecting machines to stamp this out, Fortey says.) Williams has seen onions filled with putty, and carrots with orange floor polish, to disguise the fact they were rotten. “They’re the lowest of the low,” mutters Glazebrook of cheaters. “You don’t want anything to do with them after that.”
You see guys with a metre-long cucumber. There are so many things you want to say, but they’re all inappropriateJenna Brown
These giant-vegetable growers compete not for money, but for glory: although the giant-pumpkin scene in the US is more lucrative, in the UK hardly anyone wins more than the odd £50 here or there in prize money. You can’t even eat giant vegetables – they taste rotten. “Who the hell wants to eat a 30ft carrot?” Williams asks. “It would be as tough as old boots.” (Most of the time, the vegetables are given to local farmers, for animal feed, or made into chutney.) Glory aside, giant-vegetable growers compete for the fun of it: when Short transports his giant pumpkins to shows by lorry, people wave and cheer. “I’m trundling along in the slow lane and everyone is overtaking me and having a good gawp,” he says.
It is easy to sneer at this curious world of hulking vegetables. But giant-vegetable growing is a craft – and often a lifeline. Brown had surgery for a brain tumour in March: she credits her time tending to her giant pumpkins as a crucial factor in her recovery. “The pumpkins forced me to get up on my feet and gave me a reason to get outside,” she says. “Gardening was my physiotherapy.” For Fortey, giant-vegetable-growing is a family affair: his father, Mike Fortey, co-founded the first giant-pumpkin championships in 1980. Fortey still uses tricks his father taught him, such as putting his marrows under a fishing umbrella to keep them dry.
Mike died suddenly when Fortey was 17, from a heart attack at work. It was April and he had already planted his beetroots. “Keeping his history going is a big part of it,” Fortey says. Alongside his brother, Gareth, Fortey has grown giant vegetables on the family land ever since. “The marrows always grow best where Dad used to plant them,” Fortey says. “It’s like he’s looking down on us.” In 2019, a seed descended from the crop of beetroot Mike planted broke the record for the world’s heaviest beetroot.
“Our vegetables are far bigger than his ever were,” Fortey says, wistfully. “Dad never achieved a world record. Sometimes I wish he was around to give me help with them.”
A living inheritance, passed from father to son, unfurling annually from the earth.
By : Sirin Kale – THE GUARDIAN