I’m looking at pictures of a prizewinning half-stone aubergine and a leek as tall as a human. This is the world of giant veg, a sport where the cliché is that mid-to-late-life-crisis men on allotments compete to show theirs is bigger than the next inedible specimen.
Gardener Kevin Fortey, a 45-year-old NHS project manager from south Wales, wants to shatter the belief that big veg is a warfare substitute for ultra-competitive pensioners who only care about size rather than taste. We’ve all heard the stories about the military campaigns and sabotage strategies that have been engaged upon to beat the enemy and win a gong, but it’s not really like that, he says.
He believes that post-Covid, and thanks to social media, giant veg growing has taken off and is now more about community and younger people, and also that there are now an increasing number of women involved, all connecting and sharing giant veg growing tips via platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. Rather than taking your growing secrets to the grave, sharing successes and failures is where it’s at now.
Growing the community
Fortey, who runs a 6,000-strong Giant Veg Facebook group, boasting worldwide members from Australia to Alaska, says growing prizewinning big veg is less aggressive than it was:
“It used to be quite a macho thing, but due to social media, more women are involved now. I’ve tried to bring more women into the community and make it more attractive to them as a Facebook group. My aim is to connect growers from all over the world.”
He has even been named as a “global gamechanger” by Facebook, and works hard to build connections in his role as a social media influencer. He has been on Countryfile, worked with various different brands, and has an online shop selling a mycorrhizal rootgrow product, but he stresses that with his challenging and rewarding full-time NHS job, building communities rather than bank balances is his primary aim.
“My dad started the UK giant veg championships in 1980, and my motivation is to maintain that legacy he left behind and grow that community,” he says. “The only difference that Dad used to use a typewriter, whereas I use Facebook.”
It’s not about the money
We’re in peak giant veg season, with world records set to be broken at the UK National Giant Vegetables Championship at the Malvern Autumn Show this weekend. Tens of thousands of visitors will watch the elite growers display their colossal cabbages and titanic tomatillos. They do it for awards and kudos, not money. Top prize is £100. The sixth biggest pumpkin wins a fiver.
The 2022 Malvern show totted up a record-breaking number of Guinness World Records, with 11 new titles set for everything from the heaviest field pumpkin (121.6kg by Mark Baggs from Dorset) to the longest turnip (4.605m from Joe Atherton from Nottinghamshire).
They’re an industrious bunch. Cornish farmer David Thomas uses a mini digger to shift his cabbages. Forklifts are useful to transport pumpkins, which can weigh as much as a Mini. Gerald Stratford spends five hours a day giving advice online to his 306,000 X (formerly Twitter) and 164,000 Instagram followers. He used to be an angler. Giant veg for him is just like catching the biggest fish.
Fortey is an eight-time Guinness World record holder and hopes for another for a tallest plant he wants to keep secret until Malvern. He reveals the mystery monster is half a metre taller than the US record holder. He expects the first picture of the record breaker to go viral.
Size matters, but so does quality
The UK’s best-known veg grower, Medwyn Williams, a veteran 13-time Chelsea Flower Show gold winner, will be at Malvern, but won’t be competing. Instead, he was gunning for prizes at last weekend’s Harrogate Autumn Flower Show’s National Vegetable Society competition (he is NVS president).
The difference is he exhibits perfect veg, while the giant veg guys only care about weight (and height and width). Even Fortey admits the big veg guy’s produce can be “pretty ugly – but it doesn’t matter what it looks like, it’s what the scale says.”
Anglesey-based Williams disagrees that size is everything: “I believe in quality. Giant veg is great fun, skilful as well, but if you can’t eat them... well, there’s not many you can.” He shudders that a seven stone prize-winning celery will be “tough as old boots”.
Fortey responds that “it’s a myth” that huge veg is inedible: “I grow giant tomatoes for my kitchen table. Just one makes a pasta dish.”
Williams’ carrots are grown in wheelie bins for perfect straightness and can be sliced up to eat after. Fortey says his 52lb record-breaker giant beetroot was good for juicing, powdering and pickling, while he’s seen big chillies become sauce and massive cabbages go to schools.
The pair of Welsh growers do agree that prize veg can be a family activity: “Children love it,” says Williams. “It’s a great way to start off, like growing a giant sunflower head.”
You can’t predict the weather
Fortey, whose family, like Williams’, are involved in the veg production, also agree on method. The key is the right variety of seed, then time, patience and commitment, and finally to harvest at the perfect time.
The stop-start spring and summer has made growing tricky this year. Professional growers the Paton twins of Lymington, who beat the British record with a 2,656lb pumpkin in October 2022, saw their crop fail to reach such heights this year. Fortey says it’s a global problem: “There’s heatwaves then disasters. The Patons have a perfect environment so if they can’t do it, no one can. You can’t control the sun.”
Fortey protects plants in a Keder greenhouse and says that in recent years the season has extended into September and October before frosts come. He marvels at what can be achieved, weights and sizes his late father could only have dreamed of, such as a 17lb tomato from Dan Sutherland in the USA. He has travelled worldwide to meet growers and hopes to set up shows in Chile and the Middle East, though admits Kuwait’s hot climate is not ideal for many crops.
How to supersize your crop
Marcus Eyles, horticultural director of the UK’s biggest garden centre group, Dobbies, gives a studied overview of how to do it:
“Invest in the seed companies’ varieties for show and size and then get off to an early start, straight after Christmas. Make sure the growing area’s soil is warm by covering it in black material. Keep plants protected through early spring in case of frost. Feed and water consistently. If you’re inconsistent, stops and starts can split the skin and create an ugly fruit. But whatever you produce might not be the most attractive.”
He recommends Dobbies’ multipurpose plant food with its magic ingredient, Westland seaweed.
Keeping heated and lit seedlings at 10C through the winter, using hydroponics with plants growing in nutrient-filled water, and joining a group to share seeds and information are all top tips from the experts.
My own experience is a couple of marrows that swelled on my allotment while we were on a rainy holiday in August. The day before the allotment show they disappeared from the fridge, as they were getting a bit soggy. We won the kids’ veg first prize instead, for a particularly heinous beetroot decorated with a carrot nose, runner bean mouth and cherry tomato eyes.
The joy of winning the rosette has fired us up. Next year we’ll go bigger. Maybe a full-sized scarecrow veg man with a half stone beetroot head, leeks for arms and legs… I can’t wait to share my pictures.