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Giant vegetables

It’s mid September and the autumn gardening shows are under way.   For most of us, the Harrogate and the Malvern Autumn Shows signal a move towards the end of the growing season but for growers of giant vegetables they mean much more.  In fact, they’re the high point of the gardening year.

Henley allotmenteer, Carl Lambourne has been showing his giant veg at the Malvern Autumn Show for the last six or seven years. This year is no exception.   He’ll be heading for Malvern this week with the biggest and best of his crop.

When he was a child, Carl helped his father and his grandfather with their allotments but it wasn’t until he took on one of his own in Henley 15 years ago that he began to grow vegetables for himself. He started small but soon moved on to the giants.

I visited Carl’s plot during the worst of last week’s rainstorms. As we sheltered in his polytunnel, surrounded by giant carrots and cucumbers, and peered through the torrents at enormous leeks and extra long runner beans outside, I had the slightly strange feeling that I must have shrunk in the rain. Giant vegetables distort our sense of scale and proportion.  Perhaps that’s why we find them so fascinating?

We often imagine that growing produce for showing is fiercely competitive and fuelled by longstanding rivalries. Carl says that, as far as giant veg growing is concerned, this couldn’t be further from the truth. ‘We all know each other. We’re almost like a big family. Malvern is the show that everyone goes to and we all help each other out when we’re there’.

It’s even more heartening to hear that these enthusiasts don’t just help each other out at shows. Carl explained that ‘growing takes up a lot of our time in the spring and summer. It’s in the winter that we all communicate. We swap seeds and stories. We always learn a lot from each other’.

Perhaps the friendliness of this kind of competition has something to do with the straightforward nature of the judging. The biggest or the heaviest wins. That’s it. There’s little room for bad feelings. As Carl says ‘there’s no arguing with the tape measure or the scales’. They take pride in each other’s achievements too. Carl was quick to tell me about the record breaking efforts of his friends. Last year, one of them beat the world records for the largest beetroot and longest parsnip.

I asked him whether he sacrifices flavour for size. He says not. They taste just as good as average size vegetables.  And their size makes them ideal for mass catering.  Carl gives a lot of his excess produce to Allotment Site Manager and chef, Doug Richards, who uses them for community lunches in Henley.

What are the essentials for growing giant vegetables? What do we need to get started? Carl says that the best way to get growing is to use seeds that are bred for the job. He’s happy to point anyone who is interested in the right direction. He and his friends often say that all they need are ‘good soil, good weather and good luck’. They’re obviously an unassuming bunch. I suspect we should also add patience, perseverance and an excellent knowledge of vegetable growing to their list.

Come along and meet Carl and his vegetables this Saturday, 26th September at the Henley Produce Sale, Henley Market Square, 9.30 – 12.30 where Henley allotment holders are joining with  Greenshoots to bring you the best of our September harvests.  Beans, beetroot, potatoes, chillies, courgettes, tomatoes, carrots, squashes and spinach are just some of the average size but equally delicious vegetables we hope to have for sale.  There’ll be fruit, flowers, cakes, chutneys, pickles and jams too. If you are lucky enough to win the big vegetable ‘Guess the Weight’ competition, you could be taking a giant home with you.

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