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Grow big or go home

24 September 2021

As we celebrate autumn’s harvest bounty, Catherine Fenton meets Gerald Stratford, a gardener with a passion for growing super-sized veg. For 72-year-old Gerald, size really does matter…

Gerald Stratford poses with some giant onions || Image credit: Gerald Stratford and Elizabeth Stratford

When Gerald Stratford posted a photo of himself holding a big bowl of early home-grown potatoes on Twitter in May 2020, he was stunned by the response.

‘My phone didn’t stop pinging,’ he says. ‘I called my nephew, Stephen, to ask what was happening and he said, “You’ve gone viral with your spuds!”’

Encouraged, the keen gardener, whose passion is growing big veg, posted more photos – of his enormous carrots, 6lb onions, whopping cucumbers and 4ft parsnips.

Because for 72-year-old Gerald, size really does matter. Now, in this season of harvest festivals, as many gardeners are celebrating a glut of cabbages and pumpkins, he’s bringing a new audience to the great British fete tradition of growing enormous vegetables.

At his last village show in 2019, he swept the board with 13 firsts, five seconds, three third places and a couple of cups. ‘I was particularly proud of my prize-winning mixed veg – a leek, onion, carrot and sweetcorn,’ he says.

Gerald started gardening with his father when he was a young boy, but only became interested in growing supersized veg to show in competitions about five years ago. ‘I used to be a fanatical angler, always wanting to catch a bigger fish [he was the British game fishing champion in 1984], but I grew tired of it. Then I thought, why not apply the same approach to growing veg?’

Since his spud tweet went viral, Gerald has gained more than 300,000 followers on Twitter, another 50,000-plus on Instagram, appeared on TV and radio, starred in a Gucci ad, and has just published a book, Big Veg, packed with tips.

Growing vegetables in pots

Gerald’s secret to growing big veg is buying the right seed and using good compost mixed with his special fertiliser recipes, which he tailors to each type of vegetable. ‘I buy my big veg seed from Medwyn’s of Anglesey and use well-rotted compost with, say, for carrots, calcified seaweed, superphosphate and vermiculite.’

As well as growing big veg in his garden for shows, he tends more produce on his allotments, harvesting the plants when they are young and tender for immediate consumption. Not that he doesn’t eat his big veg, unlike some other growers. ‘I don’t like the idea of growing something just to show off the size. First and foremost, I am a gardener who grows vegetables to eat. If it’s not edible, I wouldn’t grow it,’ he says. ‘In winter, I’ll take every available vegetable and cook them with some strong stock in our slow cooker. We also make a lot of chutneys, pickles and jams, even ‘sun-dried’ tomatoes in our dehydrator – nothing is wasted.’

A longer version of this article appeared in the October 2021 issue of Saga Magazine: subscribe today

Gerald mainly competes in local shows for fun, rather than national giant vegetable competitions, with their reputation for rivalry and sabotage. ‘Everyone is very friendly. There’s the annual UK National Giant Vegetables Championship in Malvern, but I’ve never entered. I’m happy being local, and I get just as much enjoyment out of breaking my own records. A few years ago, two elderly gentlemen came to blows over their giant leeks at a show up north. If that happened to me, I’d just walk away.’

Virtually self-sufficient in vegetables, Gerald also gives lots away. ‘At Christmas, we give all the family a box of our produce including a small cake and pudding – everything for their Christmas dinner bar the turkey.’

And there are an awful lot of boxes to prepare because between them, they have five children, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. ‘I let my great-grandchildren go wild on the allotment, picking and digging up veg. You mustn’t be too rigid with the young ones – let them experience what’s below the soil.’

Interesting varieties of vegetables 

Gerald regularly poses for selfies with passers-by on his allotments and spends four to five hours a day answering people’s questions on social media.

‘I think it’s only right that I should do that,’ he says, ‘but the workload is getting heavy. We do all the gardening ourselves, although my nephew Stephen helps with things like putting up fences. My wife Elizabeth is struggling with an ankle injury, and I’ve had prostate cancer [he was given the all-clear last year], but I’m not going to complain.

‘I haven’t taken a day off this year, but occasionally Elizabeth and I make a picnic and drive somewhere. We never go on holiday – we enjoy our garden too much.

‘I find so much solace in the soil. Making compost, sowing seeds or planting something is so rewarding. And now with my tweets, I’ve become a bit of a father figure. I like making people happy.’

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