It takes skill, time and above all, commitment, to produce giant veggies, writes Hannah Stephenson.
For most of us, growing vegetables is all about being able to harvest a good crop of tasty produce to feed the family. For a select few there’s a different goal.
As many vegetable competitions reach their peak, giant veg growers will now be taking apart their home-made protective barriers and supports to find out if their beloved veg has reached the required length or weight to clinch a medal.
Peter Glazebrook, a double Guinness World Record holder for the heaviest parsnip at 5.9kg (13lb) and the longest beetroot at 6.405m (21ft), will once again be entering a variety of veg into the annual UK National Giant Vegetables Championships in September.
Peter, 66, a retired buildings surveyor, has been growing giant veg for 18 years in his garden close to the Trent Valley in Nottinghamshire, which benefits from good soil and a moderate climate, with no extremes in temperature. This is vital, because if the weather is too hot, onions and leeks will stop growing and start ripening early. If it’s too cold, growth generally will slow.
“People generally get into it after entering local shows with ordinary veg,” he explains. “You often find classes for the heaviest marrow or the biggest runner bean in the little shows.”
Gardeners then progress to regional and national shows. The European Giant Vegetable Growers’ Association (EGVGA) provides links to specialist websites and access to specialised seeds. The organisation also runs a European competition each year.
“The secret to success is starting with the right seed,” says Peter. “It’s learning how to grow them and putting a lot of effort in and picking up tips from other growers and reading can about it.”
Starting vegetables off early in artificial heat to give them a long growing season and harvesting late are two of the main necessities for success.
In the greenhouse, Peter uses soil-less compost, but once the plants are transplanted he uses the compost required by the specific vegetables.
Vegetables such as pumpkins are easier to grow because they aren’t started off until April, but leeks and onions need to be started off under glass in November and will need tending all winter if they are to become giants.
“That’s what sorts out the keen growers from the gardeners,” he says.
As well as needing a greenhouse, there’s a wealth of other potential expenses such as under-soil heating, costly polytunnels, heavy frames and sturdy supports. However, many of the growers have come up with innovative home-made contraptions to allow their vegetables to grow to their optimum size.
Peter starts his parsnips in the greenhouse in December – along with leeks, onions and carrots, maintaining a minimum temperature of 10C – and grows the parsnips in pipes with the bottoms sealed to achieve a long root in winter before transplanting them into a raised bed under a tunnel in spring.
“It’s a case of trying to grow veg steadily right through until harvesting. You’re constantly monitoring temperature, ventilation and watering. When they get too big in pots in the greenhouse you then have to transfer them to their growing areas. You have to plant them under a tunnel to grow them on or home-made enclosed structures made of timber and polythene where you can take the sides off when summer arrives.”
He only grows two long-rooted beetroots because of their eventual size, planting them individually in long tubes which the root can run down. The tubes, which are only three inches wide, are positioned above ground level at an angle. Peter has to climb a ladder to water the plants while they are growing.
Trusses of runner beans and tomatoes will need to be thinned to a point where you might just have one specimen left on the plant and all the energy goes into that one fruit. Tomatoes are heavier when they are green, hence almost all heavy tomatoes you’ll see on a show bench are unripe.
Judges are looking for size and length, rather than the prettiness of a veg, he says. But they must not be rotten.
With parsnips, onions, swedes, carrots and beetroot, the green top will be cut off so only the root is weighed. With tomatoes and marrows you’re allowed 25mm of stalk.
Peter reckons you can eat most giant vegetables, but I wouldn’t. Giant root vegetables are surely too woody for the palate and any giant marrow would have a tough, leathery skin which no amount of cooking would soften.
It takes a lot of time and money to clinch a medal in a giant veg competition, and entrants are not in it for the prize money, Peter laughs.
“If you win your petrol money, then you’ve had a good day.”
* The UK National Giant Vegetables Championships is at the National Gardening Show, September 3-5, The Royal Bath & West Showground, Shepton Mallet, Somerset, www.bathandwest.com
For tickets call 01749 822222