Onion soup anyone? The secrets of how to grow giant veg

As a huge onion puts super-size vegetables in the spotlight, we asked the growing community to tell us their secrets to growing giant veg.

Growing giant vegetables is always a joy, and Gareth Griffin from Guernsey has an extra reason to love the whopping great onion he unleashed at the weekend: it could earn him a place in the record books.

Green-fingered Griffin took his 8.97kg (19lb 12oz) onion to the Harrogate Autumn Flower Show, where it rubbed shoulders with a colossus of a cabbage and various oversized root veg. His eye-watering whopper is now being verified, and if successful he’ll have bagged himself a Guinness World Record.

Gareth Griffin and his giant onionCredit: Harrogate Flower Shows
Gareth Griffin and his giant onion

This year’s contestants clearly know their onions and Griffin is no overnight success, according to giant veg grower Kevin Fortey, who runs the Giant Vegetable Community on Facebook

“Gareth is part of our Giant Vegetable Community, which spans the generations. We hold eight Guinness World Records, including the world’s heaviest beetroot, the world’s heaviest sunflower head and the tallest potato plant,” he told Saga Exceptional.


The secrets of eye-watering success

Peeling back the layers of the onion’s history, Fortey revealed: “How Gareth’s onion was born is a long story. In 2018 I seeded a giant onion, and then a pip from that was grown out by Nick Brake in Somerset, who produced an onion that was 17lbs (7.7kg) in weight. He then seeded that onion and Gareth used seeds from that to grow his latest onion.”

You might have visions of the growers tucking into a giant vat of onion soup at this point, but although Fortey says the winning vegetable is “mild and flavoursome”, its real value comes in saving it for seed. So what is Griffin’s secret to growing giant veg?

“You need perseverance, failures, good technique and a supportive community,” says Fortey. “Gareth grows in Guernsey and we always have a joke that he’s blessed with sunshine. I think the warmer soil does help and the cooler spell in August allowed the onion to ripen and grow at a slower pace. In the earlier stage, it had quite an explosive leaf growth and the more leaves you have, the more skins you have.”

Fortey shares tips on his YouTube channel, sells Giant Veg seeds and runs groups for children – and he’s finding younger people are taking an interest in the gargantuan goods. The benefits are huge for all ages. “The key to growing giant vegetables is that it gives people a sense of purpose and allows them to achieve something in life. With our community, some of the older growers don’t like some of the new technology, but we all learn from each other, share tips and ask each other questions. I’m kind of like the giant veg doctor,” he says.

Kevin Fortey and his giant vegCredit: Kevin Fortey
Kevin Fortey and his giant marrow (left) and cucumber (right)

From greens to Gucci

Photos of huge vegetables are social media catnip, as 74-year-old “King of Veg” Gerald Stratford has found. Since joining Twitter in 2019, he’s become a social media superstar, gaining 164,000 Instagram followers, writing a book, Big Veg, and even modelling for Gucci.

Stratford told Saga Exceptional: “I put a photograph of my potatoes on Twitter with the caption: ‘My first early rocket. I’m well pleased.’ [Rocket is a variety of potato.] My phone started pinging and buzzing and after about two hours I didn’t know how to silence it, so I hid the phone in the next room and it was still pinging when I went to bed. My nephew told me: ‘You’ve gone viral with your spuds, Gerald.’ I’d gone from 90 to 9,000 followers in a few hours. It’s been a juggernaut ride ever since. The whole world wants a little bit of me.”

He admits he spends most of his time tending to his garden, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. “We grow our veg to enjoy it, we give it away and we make pickles. The offshoot is I do like to see if I can get something to grow a little bit bigger. I’ve got a very big cabbage on the go at the moment,” he says.

“I just love my garden, even when things are going wrong. On Sunday, we had a traditional lunch of roast pork, roast potatoes, aubergine, pepper, beans, carrots, beetroot and turnips, all grown from our garden. It was beautiful.”

Giant vegetables on a small trainCredit: Harrogate Flower Shows
Giant vegetables on the miniature railway at Newby Hall, where the flower show was held

“King of Veg” Gerald Stratford’s tips on how to grow giant vegetables

Do your research

The most important thing is to try to understand what you’re growing. Read up or ask people. If you’ve got an allotment, ask around and even the miserable man in the corner plot eventually becomes soft and will tell you anything you want to know. Don’t be afraid to ask.

Don’t try to do everything at once

I started gardening when I was four years old and my dad gave me a bit of land. If you’re a beginner, the easiest thing to grow are radishes in a 10-litre [18-pint] bucket. Fill your bucket with compost, make sure it has holes for drainage, and make a one-inch deep hole in the compost with your finger. Drop one seed in each hole, fill it up and give it a drink. Within seven days you’ll see little shoots coming up and in one month you can dip those radishes in a bit of salt and eat them.

Love your giant veg

I treat all my veg like I treat my children. You’ve got to love them and not get frustrated if something fails. I still have failures, but I just try again.

Don’t skimp on your compost

Not everyone can make their own compost, but buy the best you can. One bag of good-quality compost is worth 10 bags of the cheap stuff.

Bump up your carrots

I grow my carrots in a 200-litre [44-gallon] barrel, filled with sand. Take a broom handle or crowbar, make a hole, wiggle it around and you’ve got a space for your carrot. I do that five times in each barrel, then I fill the holes with finely-sieved compost and soil. Don’t tamp it down, but give it a really good water and then leave it for the week. 

This is done at the end of February or beginning of March. April at the latest. It’s a bit cruel, because you have to remove two to leave enough room for the others, but rather than pull them, snip them off with scissors, because carrots and parsnips don’t like their roots to be disturbed. Pulling a fellow carrot up next to the one you’re leaving could disturb it. Then look after them and give them plenty of water and you could end up with a two- or three-foot carrot.

Got a taste for super-sized veg?

The vegetables were on display in Harrogate Autumn Flower Show’s Edible Pavilion at Newby Hall, Ripon, North Yorkshire. If you fancy your own whopper’s chances, the spring Harrogate Flower Show is from April 25 to 28 2024 at the Great Yorkshire Showground.

Hannah Verdier

Written by Hannah Verdier


Hannah Verdier writes about fitness, health, relationships, podcasts, TV and the joy of reinventing yourself at 50 and beyond. She’s a graduate of teenage music bible Smash Hits and has a side hustle as a fitness trainer who shows people who hated PE at school how to love exercise.

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