IT takes skill and great patience to grow giant fruit and vegetables, says Hannah Stephenson
All over the country, people are harvesting giant marrows, pumpkins, carrots and other whoppers to enter into autumn shows.
Headlining the Malvern Autumn Show, Worcestershire, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary, is The UK National Giant Vegetables Championship, which separates the men from the boys in the oversized veg world.
Last year two vegetable Guinness World Records were broken with a giant cabbage weighing in at over 130lb and a scale-breaking 1,200lb pumpkin, both by Cornishman David Thomas.
Growing giant veg is not for small-fry gardeners. Producing a prize specimen takes a huge amount of work and a lot of plant-based mollycoddling.
You need to beef up your soil with organic matter, fine-tune individual techniques and spend three months of the year preparing your land for giant things to come and the other nine coaxing seeds into big guns.
Choosing the right seed is all-important, because some varieties grow much larger than others. ‘Atlantic Giant’, for instance, is the biggest variety of pumpkin and current holder of the world record, but it’s not one for eating. Exhibition leeks, known as giant pot leeks, are short and squat and grown for their weight but are only available from specialist suppliers.
Seed catalogues and specialists offer giants like Old Colossus Heirloom Tomatoes, Oxheart carrots, Kelsae sweet giant onion and Carolina Cross watermelons. Northern Giant Cabbage (weighing up to 100lb), the Japanese Imperial Long Carrot (more than 12in long) and the Mammoth Zeppelin cucumber, weighing in at 16lb, are also contenders.
Growers often harvest seeds to plant next year – most prize-winning large vegetables are open-pollinated so seeds can be saved.
Seed companies such as Medwyn Williams (www.medwynsofanglesey.co.uk) and W Robinson and Son (www.mammothonion.co.uk) specialise in giant veg and provide growing information on their websites.
Starting vegetables off early in artificial heat to give them a long growing season and harvesting late are key to success.
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 through the winter.
Trusses of runner beans and tomatoes need to be thinned to a point where you might just have one left on the plant and all the energy goes into that one fruit. Tomatoes are heavier when green, which is why almost all heavy tomatoes you’ll see on a show bench are unripe.
Add slow-release organic fertiliser at planting time to ensure the nutrients are there when they are needed, as giant veg tend to grow in quick spurts. Use the appropriate feed, so if you are growing the plant for the fruit you’ll need plant food high in potassium and phosphorous, but if you are growing leafy veg like cabbage you’ll need a fertiliser with plenty of nitrogen.
Anyone growing giant veg will know that sporadic watering could spell disaster, so it’s probably wise to sort out drip irrigation if you are serious about winning that competition.
So, what sort of size might you be aiming for? The world’s largest marrow weighed in at over 14st. Malvern Autumn Show regular Peter Glazebrook is famed for growing a colossal cauliflower weighing in at 60lb, measuring 6ft wide, while the world’s longest carrot measured in at 5.83 metres.
Some growers claim their giant veg are tasty, but I’m not so sure. 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.
Better just to enjoy the visual splendour of these prize-winning giants.
• Malvern Autumn Show takes place this weekend, www.malvernautumnshow.co.uk