Forget the taste or what they look like, in the world of giant veg size is all that matters
Mr Handrahan-Cook is one of about 250 people in the UK who specialise in growing vegetables to extraordinary sizes, each hoping to win glory in contests and perhaps break a record or two along the way.
In his zeal to grow enormous squashes and other vegetables he bought a 25kg sack of calcium nitrate fertiliser along with hardware including piping, plastic sheets and screws.
This time of year is peak season for harvesting the monstrous leeks, onions, beetroots and pumpkins that giant vegetable growers such as Mr Handrahan-Cook have spent months tending.
Village halls around the country bear witness to their enthusiasm with displays and contests where they are weighed and measured.
The highlight of the year is the Malvern Autumn Show, the setting for the CANNA UK National Giant Vegetables Championship – where “size does matter!”
The pure joy of growing giant veg
The most feared figure in the giant vegetable tent is that of Martyn Davis, who has been the competition judge since the national championships began at Malvern in 2005. He qualified for the role by taking an exam and practical test with the National Vegetable Society. With his scales and tape measure, he presides over the rows of green marrows as large as seals, enormous pumpkins, and beetroots and carrots whose strings are three times as long as him.
“I judge lots of vegetable competitions,” he says. “And the prize is generally a couple of pounds. In some of the classes here it’s £100, so you can understand the interest.”
A prize-winning vegetable will earn any grower the grudging respect of their fellow enthusiasts, in some cases it makes for a nice earner. While most growers are happy to give the seeds of their giant vegetables away for free to fellow growers, a few insist on selling. It costs £5 to buy 10 seeds from the largest tomato, and a tomato that size could easily contain 300 seeds. In 2016, the heaviest pumpkin in the country, which weighed in at 1,334lb, was grown by Matthew Oliver of Essex from a seed that cost £1,250.
Mr Davis’s job is not just to weigh and measure, but to watch out for any skulduggery. “You’ve got to certify that the veg are of a reasonable quality. You’ve got to make sure they aren’t rotten. And you’ve got to certify that it is what they claim it to be.”
Cheating is rare, he insists, but is not unheard of. “We’ve had people trying to enter something which is effectively a gourd and telling us it’s a melon.” There are tales too of rivals slashing each others’ prize leeks. When it gets near show time, some growers sleep on their allotments. Putting your giant vegetables in buckets of water between shows so they retain their weight is considered poor sportsmanship, but fine if you keep quiet about it.
The money to be made is a nice perk, but what these growers really want is the glory of seeing the red first-prize card standing next to their entry. In the UK, there are around 250 serious giant veg growers. They do not necessarily focus on one category, but may enter nine or ten, returning to the same shows year after year with the produce they have laboured over every day since the last show.
These veg have not been grown for their beauty or their flavour. The varieties favoured by the growers for their ability to achieve size and weight are renowned for their tastelessness. All the watering dilutes whatever flavour there was to start with.
That doesn’t trouble the growers, though, who regard the hobby as an extreme sport. They are gardeners who take inspiration from scientists and concoct potions to encourage extra growth.
The most coveted prize of all is a Guinness World Record, the equivalent of an Olympic gold medal in the world of giant veg. This year, just one world record was broken at the Malvern Show. The very hot summer last year, followed by a hot February created a difficult season. However, Joe Atherton, a friend and rival of Mr Handrahan-Cook, managed to grow a turnip measuring 4.064m, the longest ever recorded. The UK record for the heaviest marrow was also broken by Mark Baggs with his weighing in at 90.4lbs.
Mr Atherton, 63 and from Nottinghamshire, is something of a long-vegetable legend. He has broken 12 records, and currently holds records for the longest beetroot, carrot, parsnip, radish and, now, turnip, all of which he grows in lengths of guttering fixed at an angle of 45 degrees in his back garden.
“I’ve been growing for 35 years,” he says, buoyant after his record turnip has been certified. “What’s my secret? “I’m just better than the rest.”
‘You can’t argue with the scale’
Unlike the produce lined up in perfect rows in the harvest tent next door, nothing in the giant veg tent depends on the judges’ discretion. The scales and tape measure are the only decider. “You can’t argue with the scales,” says Mr Atherton. “It’s fairer, really. There are hardly ever any arguments.”
Electrician Chris Marriott, 36, was one of the youngest giant veg growers at Malvern. “My friends all take the piss,” he says, “but I don’t care. I’m just trying to win.”
Beneath all the ribbing and ribaldry, though, there is a genuine sense of community among the growers, men of an age and lifestyle who are not interested in the term “mental health” but who often refer to how important the process of growing their giant vegetables is to them.
“It was a case of ‘what can I do to keep my body and mind active’,” says Terry King, a highways supervisor who entered the show for the second time this year. He grew the second largest red cabbage. “I always go to the allotment for an hour after work. It de-stresses me.”Gary Heeks, a former giant celery champion, suffered a cardiac arrest in April, but is determined to keep growing. “I feel so good after I have been tending to my vegetables. When you’re there you just have no worries.”