Gerald Stratford AKA the “Vegetable King” became a Twitter sensation after sharing photos of his oversized produce during 2020’s first lockdown.
The 72-year-old, who lives in the tiny village of Milton-under-Wychwood in Oxfordshire, originally joined Twitter in February 2019, on the encouragement of his friends and stepson Steven, as a way of connecting with fellow gardeners.
But he became something of an online celebrity after a cheery tweet about his first early rocket potatoes of the year went viral.
“My phone just kept buzzing, and I wasn’t sure what was going on, I phoned Steven and he said ‘you’ve just gone viral!’” Stratford says of his social media moment.
“Within two days I got something like 9,000 followers. And for that one block of two photographs, I got something like 72,000 likes.
“And it’s grown from there. I think it's at about 230K, which is unbelievable.”
It’s not difficult to see why Twitter has fallen in love with Stratford.
From his proud pictures showing off his prized veg, to his cheerful dungarees and his encouraging responses to the gardening questions he receives, Stratford is the sprinkle of positivity we all need right now.
He takes his role as Twitter’s new gardening darling pretty seriously.
When Stratford first started his account, he only spent a few minutes on Twitter each day. Now, he spends four or five hours a day posting pics of his produce and providing inspirational advice to wannabe growers as far afield as Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
“It’s taken over my life,” he jokes.
Though he loves the engagement with his fans, Stratford admits to sometimes feeling the pressure.
“It’s nice, but it's also worrying, you know, because I don’t want to let anybody down,” he says.
Stratford partly attributes his growing follower count to an increase in people seeking solace in gardening as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rumble on.
“I think through lockdown, more and more people have taken it up as a bit of a hobby,” he explains.
“It’s something to do, something to keep your mind ticking over. When you're doing something outside, whether it’s just walking up the garden and back. It’s better than festering in front of the television - it’s physically rewarding, as well as mentally.
“And the feel good factor of seeing everything grow. You water it and it grows a bit more, and then it comes to the harvest.
“To see something you've actually produced yourself is the best feeling and the taste is second to none. Better than any supermarket.”
Stratford’s unwavering positivity is no doubt a draw to those looking for light in increasingly dark times.
“I just want to let people know we're in a very dark time at the moment and, you know, we can come through it, we really can if we just all stick together and do things and be positive,” he adds to emphasise the point.
Stratford has been gardening his whole life. When he was a boy, his father gave him a small piece of ground, no bigger than a table, and some radish seeds. The “feel good factor” of seeing something he’d actually produced and then was able to eat, stayed with him.
Then when his father died, when Stratford was just 19, he and his siblings took up the mantle of gardening.
Now, the former fisherman has a large garden next to the home he shares with his partner Elizabeth, who he credits for correcting his social media posts, and two allotments nearby where he grows his internet-famous vegetables.
In the future he hopes to write a book on how to grow big veg “Gerald’s way” and he’d also like to produce a really big onion, a 10 pounder to be precise.
“I’ve got an ambition to grow a monster onion one day,” he says. “Watch this space!”
In the meantime you’ll find him over on Twitter, answering everyone’s gardening questions and making the world that little bit cheerier.
Read more: Easy ways to get children into gardening
Stratford’s tips for beginner gardeners
Little and often
I get a lot of questions from people asking ‘how do I start?’ and I always tell them not to try doing everything at once. Start with something small, like radish, lettuces or potatoes, and see it through to fruition.
Think outside the plant box
There are a lot of vegetables you can grow in containers on small balconies or in small spaces. Even if you live in a flat, if you’ve got a windowsill, you can still grow things. One bucket with one potato planted in it will give you enough potatoes for a week’s food.
As well as traditional gardening, I plant things in buckets, troughs, milk cartons, water bottles. If my partner Elizabeth asks me to take a bag of rubbish to the recycling bin. I go through it to see if there’s anything in there I can use as a planter. Grape cartons and mushroom cartons are great for planting seeds in.
Know when to take time out
if you get frustrated, at say digging your piece of ground, put the fork in the shed and go and do something else. You can always come back to it. Don’t make yourself ill. Gardening’s not about making yourself ill, it’s about making yourself well.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. If you’re new to gardening, just do a little bit at a time. Read as much as possible, buy a basic book, nothing too complicated, or read the back of the seed packets. Every packet of seeds will have instructions on how to grow the produce, so just follow that.
Keep a gardening diary
I’m a firm believer in keeping a diary. Everything in the garden, the greenhouse, the allotment is documented in my diary and I can fall back on it for reference. It’s really useful to jot things down, even something as simple as ‘I planted carrots today’. In a year’s time you’ll have forgotten what day you’d planted them, but you’ll have it there in your diary. A scrap of paper will do. It stops frustration syndrome kicking in.
As well as being able to trade gardening tips, which will help breed confidence, making friends with other gardeners will mean you can swap seeds or produce. I've got friends around the country who send me seeds and I’ll send them seeds or a jar of chutney in return.
Don’t worry if things don’t go to plan
A packet of radish seeds might say to plant them 2cm deep but in your enthusiasm you might have done it 3cm deep. You might have read they will be up in 14 days but if you planted them a little bit too deep those 14 days might be 20 days. So be patient and try not to get frustrated.
And if all else fails just “join Twitter and talk to Gerald”.