Giant fruits and vegetables

Why Vegetables Get Freakish In The Land Of The Midnight Sun

Giant Cabbage Weigh-Off 2013 winners (with placards, left to right): Scott Rob (92.1 pounds), Keevan Dinkel (92.3 pounds) and Brian Shunskis (77.4 pounds). The growers are joined by the cabbage fairies, a group of women who for 15 years have volunteered at the cabbage competition. Clark James Mishler/Courtesy of Alaska State Fair hide caption

toggle caption Clark James Mishler/Courtesy of Alaska State Fair

Giant Cabbage Weigh-Off 2013 winners (with placards, left to right): Scott Rob (92.1 pounds), Keevan Dinkel (92.3 pounds) and Brian Shunskis (77.4 pounds). The growers are joined by the cabbage fairies, a group of women who for 15 years have volunteered at the cabbage competition.

Clark James Mishler/Courtesy of Alaska State Fair

Everything in Alaska is a little bit bigger — even the produce. A 138-pound cabbage, 65-pound cantaloupe and 35-pound broccoli are just a few of the monsters that have sprung forth from Alaska’s soil in recent years.

At the annual Alaska State Fair, which opens Thursday in Palmer, the public will have the chance to gawk at giants like these as they’re weighed for competition.

Several state fairs have giant crop competitions, but Alaska is known for yielding particularly big specimens that wind up setting Guinness World Records.

Alaska grower Brittney Kauffman holds two zucchinis she entered in a giant vegetable competition in 2013. “Alaska is just a hotbed for gardening, believe it or not,” says Alaska State Fair crops superintendent Kathy Liska. “Everybody thinks that we’re always under ice — no!” Clark James Mishler/Courtesy of Alaska State Fair hide caption

toggle caption Clark James Mishler/Courtesy of Alaska State Fair

Alaska grower Brittney Kauffman holds two zucchinis she entered in a giant vegetable competition in 2013. “Alaska is just a hotbed for gardening, believe it or not,” says Alaska State Fair crops superintendent Kathy Liska. “Everybody thinks that we’re always under ice — no!”

Clark James Mishler/Courtesy of Alaska State Fair

It’s Alaska’s summer sun that gives growers an edge, says Steve Brown, an agricultural agent at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who also serves on the fair’s board of directors. Basking in as much as 20 hours of sunshine per day, Alaskan crops get a photosynthesis bonus, allowing them to produce more plant material and grow larger. Brassicas like cabbage do especially well, says Brown.

The extra sunlight also makes the produce sweeter. “People often try our carrots here, and they think we’ve put sugar on them,” Brown says.

But many of the biggest ones — the real monsters — aren’t flukes; they’re a product of careful planning.

Selecting the right seed varieties is just as important as the time spent in the sunlight, says Brown, who teaches a class on growing giants. Top Palmer growers like Scott Robb, who Brown calls a giant vegetables “Einstein,” spend years experimenting with different varieties to get a prize winner.

“Let’s face it: You’re not going to win the Kentucky Derby with a mule or a Shetland pony,” says Robb, who holds five current world records for his large vegetables. “If you don’t have the right genetic material, you’re never going to achieve that ultimate goal.”

Indeed, it took him 20 years to break the cabbage record in 2012, when he brought in a 138.25-pounder.

Hopeful giant cultivators start their seeds in January, under grow lights in greenhouses. For months, they transfer their plants into larger and larger pots until May when the ground is finally warm enough for them.

Up until the fair, growers must protect their pedigreed vegetables. Robb said that when he started, he would stay up all night to guard his veggies from hungry moose; eventually he put up an electrified fence to keep them out. Brown also says serious growers may construct elaborate watering and fertilization systems for their produce to ensure they get exactly what they need.

“It really reminds me of Frankenstein’s laboratory,” Brown says. “If you were to go visit somebody who was growing a giant veggie for this fair, I think the thing that what would impress you is how much science and technology goes into this.”

Ashleena Roberts holds a reindeer for scale next to a pumpkin in the Alaska State Fair giant pumpkin contest. Clark James Mishler/Courtesy of Alaska State Fair hide caption

toggle caption Clark James Mishler/Courtesy of Alaska State Fair

Ashleena Roberts holds a reindeer for scale next to a pumpkin in the Alaska State Fair giant pumpkin contest.

Clark James Mishler/Courtesy of Alaska State Fair

Giants can sprout unexpectedly, too. Such was the case with Roger Boshears, a state fair herbs judge and hobbyist gardener who once took a second-place ribbon for a large tomato he pulled from his garden.

“It’s not something that we’re aiming for,” Boshears says of his fellow amateurs. “It’s something that happens.”

Not all fruits and vegetables thrive in Alaska. Watermelons and tomatoes, for instance, which love the heat, have a tougher time. But “there are Alaskans that will grow watermelons in greenhouses just to be able to say they did it,” Brown says.

As the vegetable hotbed of Alaska, the town of Palmer has its roots in a New Deal-era program to bring Midwestern farming families north to establish an agricultural colony.

The fair held there has two rounds of crop competitions along with separate competitions for pumpkins and, the main attraction, cabbages (on Aug. 29). The winning specimens are donated to the animals at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center when the fair concludes.

Robb says he has high hopes for winning the title for some rutabagas he’s been cultivating, but he’s worried that fellow Alaskan and friendly rival Steve Hubacek could threaten his perch as the cabbage record-holder.

Whitney Blair Wyckoff is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.

Giant Vegetable Plants: How To Grow Giant Vegetables In The Garden

Ever been to the county fair and marveled at the mammoth blue ribbon pumpkins on display or other giant veggie varieties? Perhaps you have wondered how on earth they grow these giant vegetable plants. Despite their massive size, growing huge vegetables requires a lot of TLC, intensive prep work and patience. Gird yourself with these and the following information about giant vegetable plants, and you too may find yourself with a ribbon or a trophy; at the very least you will have fun!

Types of Giant Garden Vegetables

Do some research and decide what giant veggie varieties you would like to attempt to grow. There is quite a variety beyond the gigantic pumpkin, although those are quite dramatic with the world’s record going to a 1,400 pound behemoth. Giant veggie varieties of broccoli (35 lbs.), carrot (19 lbs), beet (43 lbs), celery (49 lbs), and red cabbage (45 lbs) to name a few, are some of the massive produce that can be grown.

Seeds, although a bit pricey, can be purchased from seed catalogs for giants such as:

  • Big Zac and Old Colossus heirloom tomatoes
  • Oxheart carrots
  • Giant Cobb Gem or Carolina Cross watermelons
  • Atlantic Giant pumpkins

Other giant veggie varieties of seeds specifically chosen for their inordinate sizes are:

  • Tropic Giant cabbages
  • Giant Silo corn
  • German Queen and Beefsteak-type tomatoes
  • Big Bertha green peppers
  • Kelsea Giant onions
  • Gold Pak carrots

Another option for growing huge vegetables is to save seed from particularly large produce which you have grown for sowing the following season; this doesn’t work with hybrids though.

How to Grow Giant Vegetables

Enticing isn’t it? Now the question is how do we grow giant vegetables? Number one order of business is soil. Growing giant veggie varieties must have nutrient rich, well draining soil. It’s a great idea to amend the soil with as much organic matter as possible along with nitrogen prior to winter. Then in the spring, till the soil as deeply as you can, especially if growing giant root crops, like carrots, since they need lots of loose soil for their huge roots. Also, creating raised beds to encourage better drainage of the giant vegetable plants is a plus and be sure to plant the giant in full sun.

Fertilization is, of course, key. The large pumpkin, squash and melon varieties may need liquid fertilizer once a week, while the smaller root crops need a bit less frequent feedings. Leafy veggies, such as cabbage, require high nitrogen fertilizer. The type and frequency of feeding is dependent upon the type of veggie you are growing. A slow release organic fertilizer that continuously feed the giant over the course of the season is ideal. A rule of thumb is to fertilize with high phosphorus food before plants are pollinated and high potassium content once fruit is set. Organic gardeners should water daily with compost tea.

Plant your giant veggie varieties as soon as possible in the spring to take advantage of the longest possible growing season and water them well. These giants need water! You may water by hand if you only have a few plants or drip irrigate. Drip irrigation provides the boon of a slow supply of water to the roots and is more effective than large amounts delivered less frequently, which can stress your giant babies out and result in cracking the fruit.

Okay people, if you are like me, this is the tough part. Remove all the veggies from the plant except 2-3 of the healthiest with the eventual goal of removing all except the best one to encourage the plant to put all of its energy into growing a giant. Place a porous mat under the growing giant to protect it from rot and pests and keep the giant clean. Inspect daily for pests and take immediate (using non-toxic methods like hand picking) action to exterminate them. Keep the area around your prize weed free.

Final Thoughts on Growing Giant Veggies

Another question you may have upon beholding your giant vegetable is “are giant vegetables edible?” Well, they could be eaten, but often giant veggie varieties are grown for the attribute of their shocking size, not flavor. Chances are you are growing the giant for bragging rights anyway and not to consume, so enjoy the novelty and excitement of growing the “biggun” without thought to actually eating it.

Be patient when growing your giant and talk to other folks who have successfully grown giant vegetables. They will often be a font of information as well as proud to share their success stories.

There’s nothing better than harvesting the biggest veggies you can possibly grow. Many people find great satisfaction in producing crops that have produced to their maximum potential. Awards are given away for these accomplishments at fairs and other competitions. As a home gardener, what can you do to maximize yields and sizes of your vegetables? There are several general things you can do to help increase the sizes of many common household crops.

• Provide your vegetables with plenty of everything. This means, full sun, plenty of water, well-draining and organic matter-rich soil, and lots of food. Full sun exposure means that vegetables generally need at least 8 hours of full daylight in order to produce their best crops. This goes for all common vegetable crops. Excellent soil is also a must. Soil that is rich with compost, is optimal. Fertilizing vegetables is usually an easy task. A general vegetable fertilizer or a good layer of compost around your vegetables would work. If you are in the market for organic compost we produce our own right in Milford, . If you are starting a new garden you will want to use our Garden Soil, a 50/50 mix of our organic topsoil and compost.

• Space your vegetables out correctly. Following planting instructions closely when spacing out seeds or thinning out seedlings is extremely important if you want your vegetables to grow to their full potential.

• Don’t allow undue stress on your plants. This includes allowing your vegetables to dry out too much, not providing the right amount of nutrients, not offering enough protection from extreme weather conditions, or any other kind of general stressor that can harm your veggies. As with any kind of plant, when they undergo a stressor, they make physiological changes that usually will detriment their fruiting production, meaning if you stress out your plants you’ll get smaller yields. You can avoid some common stress by setting up a timed automatic irrigation system if you think you won’t be around consistently to water your crop. Rely on an extended release fertilizer to space out the amounts of applications you’ll need to remember. Plant windbreaks or try to locate your vegetable garden in an area that’s protected from prevailing winds or excessive water drainage.

• Keep diseases and insects at bay. There are plenty of chemical measures you can take to prevent and treat problems as they arise. If you prefer going to more natural route, rotate your yearly crops to help avoid repeated insect infestations (for example, never plant cabbage in the same area two years in a row. Cabbage worm incubates in the soil over the winter and will continuously return to eat your cabbage). You can also plant natural insect repelling crops around your vegetables, such as pyrethrum, marigolds, and dill.

• Choose varieties of vegetables that have been bred and proven to produce larger fruit and have superior disease resistance from reputable seed suppliers. You can find this information online or your supplier will recommend what varieties of vegetables would do best in your area based on the diseases that are prevalent and that affect crops around you. For example, most commercially available disease resistant tomatoes are bred to be resistant to several types of fusarium wilt, which is a common disease in tomatoes and will stress your plants resulting in small fruit.

• Practice selective pruning and removal of extra stems and flowers. This is especially true for tomatoes. Removing suckering stems and extra flowers will make the tomato plant concentrate its energy on making fewer but larger tomatoes. Some other vegetables don’t need help, with fruiting bodies that seem to grow indefinitely, such as zucchini.

There are lots of things you can do that will result in bigger vegetables. Most of these involve basic awareness, and attentive care of your crop as it matures. There are plenty of other specific measures you can take depending on the species, but these general tips will give you a good start on growing some of your biggest vegetables ever!

Imagine harvesting nearly half a ton of tasty, beautiful vegetables from a 15-by-20-foot plot, 100 pounds of tomatoes from just 100 square feet, or 20 pounds of carrots from just 24 square feet. Yields like these are easier to achieve than you may think. The secret to super-productive gardening is taking the time now to plan strategies that will work for your garden.

Here are seven high-yield strategies gleaned from gardeners who have learned to make the most of their garden space.

1. Plant in raised beds with rich soil.

Elena Elisseeva/

Expert gardeners agree that building up the soil is the single most important factor in pumping up yields. A deep, organically rich soil encourages the growth of healthy, extensive roots able to reach more nutrients and water. The result: extra-lush, extra-productive growth above ground.

The fastest way to get that deep layer of fertile soil is to make raised beds. Raised beds yield up to four times more than the same amount of space planted in rows. That’s due not only to their loose, fertile soil but also to efficient spacing. By using less space for paths, you have more room to grow plants.

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Raised beds save you time, too. One researcher tracked the time it took to plant and maintain a 30-by-30-foot garden planted in beds, and found that he needed to spend just 27 hours in the garden from mid-May to mid-October. Yet he was able to harvest 1,900 pounds of fresh vegetables. That’s a year’s supply of food for three people from about three total days of work!

How do raised beds save so much time? Plants grow close enough together to crowd out competing weeds so you spend less time weeding. The close spacing also makes watering and harvesting more efficient.

2. Round out the soil in your beds.

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The shape of your beds can make a difference, too. Raised beds become more space-efficient by gently rounding the soil to form an arc. A rounded bed that is 5 feet wide across its base, for instance, could give you a 6-foot-wide arc above it. That foot might not seem like much, but multiply it by the length of your bed and you’ll see that it can make a big difference in total planting area.

In a 20-foot-long bed, for example, mounding the soil in the middle increases your total planting area from 100 to 120 square feet. That’s a 20% gain in planting space in a bed that takes up the same amount of ground space. Lettuce, spinach, and other greens are perfect crops for planting on the edges of a rounded bed.

3. Plant crops in triangles instead of rows.

Yakimova Elena/

To get the maximum yields from each bed, pay attention to how you arrange your plants. Avoid planting in square patterns or rows. Instead, stagger the plants by planting in triangles. By doing so, you can fit 10 to 14% more plants in each bed.

Just be careful not to space your plants too tightly. Some plants won’t reach their full size — or yield — when crowded. For instance, when one researcher increased the spacing between romaine lettuces from 8 to 10 inches, the harvest weight per plant doubled. (Remember that weight yield per square foot is more important than the number of plants per square foot.)

Overly tight spacing can also stress plants, making them more susceptible to diseases and insect attack.

4. Grow climbing plants to capitalize on space.

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No matter how small your garden, you can grow more by going vertical. Grow space-hungry vining crops—such as tomatoes, pole beans, peas, squash, melons, cukes, and so on—straight up, supported by trellises, fences, cages, or stakes.

Growing vegetables vertically also saves time. Harvest and maintenance go faster because you can see exactly where the fruits are. Fungal diseases are also less likely to affect upward-bound plants s thanks to the improved air circulation around the foliage.

Try growing vining crops on trellises along one side of raised beds, using sturdy end posts with nylon mesh netting or string in between to provide a climbing surface. Tie the growing vines to the trellis. But don’t worry about securing heavy fruits. Even squash and melons will develop thicker stems for support.

5. Pick compatible pairings.

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Interplanting compatible crops saves space, too. Consider the classic Native American combination, the “three sisters:” corn, beans, and squash. Sturdy cornstalks support the pole beans, while squash grows freely on the ground below, shading out competing weeds.

Other compatible combinations include tomatoes, basil, and onions; leaf lettuce and peas or brassicas; carrots, onions, and radishes; and beets and celery.

6. Time your crops carefully.

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Succession planting allows you to grow more than one crop in a given space over the course of a growing season. That way, many gardeners can harvest three or even four crops from a single area. For instance, follow an early crop of leaf lettuce with a fast-maturing corn, and then grow more greens or overwintered garlic — all within a single growing season. To get the most from your succession plantings:

  • Use transplants. A transplant is already a month or so old when you plant it, and matures that much faster than a seed sown directly in the garden.
  • Choose fast-maturing varieties.
  • Replenish the soil with a ¼-to-½-inch layer of compost (about 2 cubic feet per 100 square feet) each time you replant. Work it into the top few inches of soil.

7. Stretch your season by covering the beds.

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Adding a few weeks to each end of the growing season can buy you enough time to grow yet another succession crop — say a planting of leaf lettuce, kale, or turnips — or to harvest more end-of-the-season tomatoes.

To get those extra weeks of production, you need to keep the air around your plants warm (even when the weather is cold) by using mulches, cloches, row covers, or cold frames.

Or give heat-loving crops (such as melons, peppers, and eggplants) an extra-early start in the spring by using two “blankets” — one to warm the air and one to warm the soil. About six to eight weeks before the last frost date, preheat cold soil by covering it with either infrared-transmitting (IRT) mulch or black plastic, which will absorb heat.

Then, cover the bed with a slitted, clear plastic tunnel. When the soil temperature reaches 65 to 70 degrees Farenheit, set out plants and cover the black plastic mulch with straw to keep it from trapping too much heat. Remove the clear plastic tunnel when the air temperature warms and all danger of frost has passed. Install it again at the end of the season when temperatures cool.

If you have visited MSHS at the Minnesota State Fair, you’ve been in the Agriculture/Horticulture Building, home to craft beer, University of Minnesota apples, floral displays galore and the room where the BIG vegetables are on display. I have to stop there every year to check out the massive pumpkins (this year’s big winner is 1,100 pounds!), large zucchinis, extra big banana squash and other oversized wonders.

I always leave with two questions: Are they hard to grow? Do those big vegetables taste different than the regular sized ones? This year, I decided to do a little research.

This 1,100 pound wonder won the giant pumpkin contest at the Minnesota State Fair.

Growing giant pumpkins requires the right seeds, growing conditions, lots and lots of fertilizer and a fair amount of care, especially pruning. To get the pumpkins to extra big size, growers will look for seed from other large pumpkins—sort of the same thinking as “if your mom was tall, you will be too”. They start the seeds indoors in April to get the plants going in the spring, and once planted outside, they will bury much of the early growth of the pumpkin vine. At each leaf node underground, the pumpkin will send down a root, which allows it to pull in moisture and nutrients from the soil. Once a fruit is set, growers will baby it by covering it and placing it on a mat to ensure it stays clean. At times the fruits grow rapidly (like 30 pounds a day), so one concern is that the fruit not split.

You can find seeds to grow large vegetables of all kinds through seed exchanges. Wisconsin is home to an active group for large pumpkin growers. This video shows how one grower gets his extra big pumpkins.

Zucchini bread, anyone?

As for taste, well, these pumpkins are not grown for flavor, and my own experience is that once a zucchini gets past a certain size it’s only good for zucchini bread.

You can find the giant vegetables and other vegetable displays just down the hall from us at the Horticulture/Agriculture building at the fair. We are in the Dirt Wing and hope you’ll stop by during your fair visit. We’ve got gloves, books, an educational display and lots of information about joining the hort society. See you at the fair!

You can also see perfect-sized vegetables at the fair.

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Can you grow veges like this?

They are one of the horticultural hazards of summer: courgettes that puff themselves up to the size of sausage dogs while you are off holidaying at the beach.

Who hasn’t come home from their Christmas break to find at least one marrow as big as a caveman’s club? But whereas I sigh at the size of these chubby courgettes, Welsh champion vegetable grower Kevin Fortey actively encourages his marrows to reach massive proportions. He panders to their every whim, lavishing sheep dag compost on their soil and tucking their tummies on sand beds under umbrellas in a bid to break records.

1 of 7LYNDA HALLINAN Welsh champion vegetable grower Kevin Fortey’s dad Mike began selectively breeding his ‘Fortey’ strain of giant marrow seed 25 years ago, saving seed from his biggest prize-winning marrows to resow and sell. 2 of 7LYNDA HALLINAN After sowing and transplanting, the night before Kevin thinks the first male and female flowers are due to open, he covers the flower buds to keep bees out. 3 of 7LYNDA HALLINAN Once they start growing, each marrow is protected from temperature fluctuations by umbrellas. 4 of 7LYNDA HALLINAN Frost cloth is also used to protect the crop. 5 of 7LYNDA HALLINAN The fruit can swell to 150cm long and packs on up to 70kg over seven weeks. 6 of 7LYNDA HALLINAN After each competition, Kevin lets his prized marrows mature for a fortnight. 7 of 7LYNDA HALLINAN The ssed is washed, dried and sold to fellow giant vege enthusiasts. Each gargantuan marrow might only yield 150 viable seeds.

I visited him in late August, taking a tour of the tunnelhouses and beds behind his mum Marjorie’s house in an unassuming suburban Cwmbran street. This is where Kevin and his brother Gareth grow prize-winning produce along with Kevin’s son Jamie Courtney-Fortey, 11, a record-breaking sunflower grower in his own right. Jamie holds the UK record for the largest sunflower head, an enormous beauty that measured 66.54cm across and 170.2cm in circumference.

Kevin reels off some of his recent triumphs: the UK record for the heaviest marrow (77.6kg), the biggest bell pepper (560g), the weightiest field pumpkin (72kg) and the world’s heaviest chilli (348g).

Meanwhile just up the road in Langstone, their rival Ian Neale holds the world record for the biggest celery plant (34kg), the longest cucumber (107cm) and the heaviest swede in the world, weighing in at 53.9kg.

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South Wales is an unlikely place to find a cluster of competitive croppers, but the genesis of the UK National Giant Vegetable Championship can be traced here to a “bet over a pint at the local pub” in the early 1980s.

LYNDA HALLINAN Fancy eating a tomato that’s bigger than your hand?

Kevin and Gareth’s late father Mike challenged fellow punters at his pub to a competition to see who could grow the biggest pumpkins in their allotments. “After two years, the pumpkins had gotten too big to fit through the doors of the pub, so they had to find a new venue for their competition,” Kevin recalls.
They relocated to the workingmen’s club (“it had double front doors”) and then to a leisure centre in Cardiff. And now there’s an entire autumn championship circuit, with hotly contested shows in Peterborough, Aberglasney, Harrogate and Malvern. “It’s really fun,” says Kevin of his horticultural hobby. “Some people go to the pub to down ten pints a night but I prefer to potter around in the greenhouse trying to get something to grow as big as possible.”

By day, Kevin has a job managing social housing grants, but when he clocks off, you’ll find him either tending his crops at his mum’s house or down at his Cwmbran allotment. (Kevin’s partner Emma “tolerates” his passion but has declared their own manicured garden a no-go zone for the growing of giant veges.)

There’s no rest for the wickedly obsessed, as growing giant veges for glory requires year-round dedication. For Kevin, the season begins in late winter, when he cultivates the soil floor of his tunnelhouse and takes a strimmer to his green cover crops outdoors. He sows nitrogen-fixing field beans and hairy vetch, and brown mustard for its biofumigant properties, for nothing wrecks your championship chances quite like a soil-borne fungal disease.

LYNDA HALLINAN How about a 2.2kg tomato?

After the green crops are mulched to a pulp and dug in with a rotary hoe, he gets his soil analysed. Any deficiencies are corrected with trace elements and NPK fertiliser.

Inside his hothouse he starts his leeks off in October, his cabbages in November, and his giant carrots and parsnips in January. But it is the marrows that take the most time.

In May/June, Kevin chits his marrow seeds on a wet paper towel inside a sealed plastic container. “As soon as I see the tap root emerging out of the seed, the seeds are sown in white pots inside a heated ropagator.”

LYNDA HALLINAN The huge heads of Jamie’s sunflowers are cable-tied to scaffolding for support.

Why white, I ask, given that most plant seedlings are sold in black plastic punnets and pots? “It reduces the heat getting to the root system, so they grow more slowly, producing stronger, healthier roots.”

The marrow seedlings are planted, along with a scoop of beneficial mycorrhizal fungus, when all risk of frost has passed. A mini tunnel is popped over the plants for the first few weeks after transplanting to keep them sheltered from cold winds.

Because he’s maintaining the seed line started by his dad Mike 25 years ago, hand-pollinating the flowers and only saving seed of the biggest fruit, no other edible marrows or courgettes are grown in the garden to avoid any risk of cross pollination. And just to be sure, after pollination the female (fruit-producing) flower is covered with a paper bag secured with a rubber band for 48 hours.

LYNDA HALLINAN Kevin’s heaviest carrot tipped the scales at 6.9kg.

Each plant is allowed to grow to about 4.5m long, with a single fruit set on the main vine. All of the side shoots grow out 1.5m before being nipped off. To stabilise the plant and allow for as much growth as possible, Kevin snuggles the main and side vines into the soil so they can root down at all the leaf joints.

Only one marrow is left to develop per vine, first in a bed of soft sand, so its progress isn’t slowed by bumps or lumps in the soil, and then on top of a reflective polystyrene board that helps insulate it from fluctuations in soil temperature.

It’s a nerve-racking time and Kevin keeps a constant eye on the weather forecast. If the marrow splits because of too much rain or too much heat, the entire season is lost. “So far, we’ve been lucky in that we’ve always managed to save at least one,” says Kevin.

LYNDA HALLINAN Supercharged ‘Scarlet Runner’ beans are still tender and stringless.

His aim is to crack the world record for the heaviest marrow, which currently stands at 208lb or 94.34kg. “That one was grown in the Netherlands. It was just luck, a fluke, because they’ve never had them that big again. We’ve come close, at 195lb (88.45kg), but then it split.”

While Kevin’s runner beans produce flaming orange flowers as big as sweet peas and pods that regularly reach more than 70cm in length, that’s still a full foot short of the world record of 1.3m. “The world record is actually quite contentious,” Kevin says. “It was set in 1997 in America but we suspect it was a yard long bean, rather than a standard runner.”

Championship vegetable growers share a collegial spirit and Kevin has enjoyed a friendly rivalry with Ian Neale since he was a lad competing alongside his dad. But don’t be fooled into thinking that makes them any less competitive. “It was quite funny this year at the Malvern show when we weighed in our poblano chillies. Ian’s looked bigger but when we plonked ours on the scales it was 48g heavier and took out the world record. He wasn’t too happy about it. I can’t repeat exactly what he said to me,” teases Kevin, “but it wasn’t congratulations.”

LYNDA HALLINAN Ian Neale in his vegetable field in Langstone, Wales.

Ian, 74, is a retired nurseryman who used to grow popular bedding and hanging basket plants, such as busy lizzies, begonias, alyssum and antirrhinums, plus a Christmas cut flower crop of chrysanthemums.

Ian still grows on a few flowers for the local council’s colourful roadside planter boxes, and for his sister Joan, who lives next door and has a riotous begonia-filled backyard. Joan has a soft spot for wallflowers, which explains why there are a few rows of them tucked in between Ian’s giant marrows and cabbages when I visit. “I’ve always loved growing plants and giant vegetables fitted in really nicely as a side hobby. I wasn’t keen on golf or bowls and I used to play rugby but once I had the nursery, I couldn’t afford to get injured.”

And what do they do with their humongous swedes and colossal carrots after the prizes are awarded? Kevin hires his giant vegetables out as props for PR events and film sets – two of his leeks once flew first class to Japan for a special television appearance – but Ian is happy for his root vegetables to take a one-way trip to each competition. “My car is quite weighed down by the time I’ve squeezed in a 100lb marrow, an 80lb swede, a 30lb beet, a 50lb cabbage and a couple of giant cucumbers. So if I’m driving 180 miles to a show, I’d rather leave them behind for them to deal with so I can get home that much quicker.”

Some of their crops do end up on a plate or in a glass. “Although most giant vege isn’t great to eat,” explains Kevin, “some – like the runner beans, tomatoes and onions – are perfectly good. Even the giant carrots are okay, though they do take a bit of cutting to get them into the slow cooker.”
Ian gifts his watermelons to a local fellow who ferments them into a fizzy wine but he lives alone and admits that he doesn’t have the appetite to chew through an entire 54kg swede. “I have eaten them – or at least pieces of them,” he jokes.

To see more of Kevin and Ian’s giant vegetables, visit giantveg.co.uk or follow Giant Veg on Facebook. To grow some giant veges yourself, here’s how to take part in NZ Gardener’s Giant Vege Challenge!

NZ Gardener

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