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A success story that is home-grown

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: August 19, 2014

  • At the Penllergaer Gardening Club annual show at the Llewellyn Hall in Penllergaer are (from left) Anthony Fitzgerald, Christine Pugh Stuart Johns, Anna Broadbent, Wendy Fitzgerald, Rosemary Evans and Kerith Williams.

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IT is not, I have to admit, my favourite vegetable. Give me some peas and carrots and I am happy. Runner beans, a bit of cauli or even sprouts and I couldn't ask for better.

But cabbages? Memories of those school dinners and the smell that often went with it, has, not to put too fine a point on it, put me off this particular veg for life.

So faced with the monster cabbage specimen in front of me, I am left to ponder just how many people it might feed.

Twenty, 30, 40? In reality, I suspect an awful lot more.

Looking at Huw Jones' giant cabbages in the back garden of his Treboeth home, there's quite a few portions of coleslaw in them all. Indeed — he is aiming for close to 45lbs with a single one this year. That is still less than half the official world record for such a beast, but Huw, 52, is still upbeat about it.

Cultivating enormous vegetables is fundamentally a solitary pastime. At the top level there is a strong competitive element, but the overriding satisfaction comes from a sense of personal achievement: of overcoming all the hazards and disappointments in trying to outsmart nature by making something grow bigger than it has ever done.

As a spectacle, it can't compete with an afternoon's sporting showdown at say, the Liberty Stadium. But there is plenty of excitement among the men and women who for months have been pampering their produce to get it to the peak of plumpness for local competitions.

Penllergaer Gardening Club's annual show last weekend saw hundreds trek through its doors looking perhaps not quite so much at giant veg but just honest-to-goodness home produce.

Even so, it was another huge winner.

Its Tony Fitzgerald says the club and its annual shows remain as popular as ever.

"It's a closed show which means only our members can enter," he says.

"But people seem to love it and all its sections which includes a craft one too.

"I think it's because it is the culmination of people's hard efforts whether that is producing a pot of jam, three long runner beans or three pears which all look identical. ''

The club, which also organises regular gardening trips both abroad and in the UK, now has 60 members. And it's a figure which is growing as more and more people get on board with its activities.

Huw Jones asserts there is nothing quite like showing the efforts of your toils when it comes to gardening.

"I love going to these sort of shows,'' he adds.

"It isn't always about giant veg either. It's also about more everyday things but lovingly and carefully nurtured by keen amateurs. ''

The monsters in his garden were no more than fragile seedlings a few months ago. Now, they are prized giants.

Huw got into the game by chance eight years ago during a chance conversation with a regular at his local.

" He spoke with such passion about it, I was also immediately hooked,'' he says.

"I had a good sized garden and wasn't doing a lot with it so though I would give it a go. I started out with a few seeds.

"From there I never looked back.''

But rather than stick to row upon row of potatoes, runner beans and lettuces, his passion lies with monster-sized specimens. At the biggest shows, the entries are weighed as soon as they are unloaded.

The monsters can then go straight from the scales to the exhibition bench and stay there until the end of the show, minimising the number of times the vegetables (some weighing over a hundredweight) have to be lifted and moved.

Even so, plenty of muscular — and careful — volunteers are required. The root vegetables, although heavy, are quite straightforward to handle; but the men have to be particularly cautious with the leafy stuff (the cabbages, cauliflowers and celery). If they break any leaves they could ruin a grower's chance of winning.

Although his efforts this year look pretty sturdy to me, his previous cabbage attempts have produced winners of 40 and 50lbs apiece. This year, he is setting his sights on one weighing in at 50lbs. Even so, still some way off the world record weight of 127 lbs.

"How big a saucepan do you need to put that lot into?" I ask him when I spy his giant runner beans.

He laughs politely. It's not the first time he has heard jokes like that.

Nonetheless, most serious growers of quality vegetables regard this kind of thing as a freak show, incidental to their principal objectives.

Comparing the production of giant vegetables with the subtler skills needed to grow their smaller but better groomed counterparts is, they believe, like contrasting the brute force of sumo wrestling with the elegant thrust and parry of classical fencing. Nor is there any profit. Even if one supreme cultivator were to walk away with all the top prizes over a season, they could not make a living from their prowess. The seeds and seedlings need to be kept at a temperature of at least 10c until the summer, and require hours of extra lighting.

The prize money — hardly ever more than three figures and often less — will scarcely pay the fuel bill for the heated greenhouse. Then there are the costs of the special fertilisers and composts and of transport to the shows. And don't forget the pots, barrels, piping, outhouses, cold frames and polytunnels.

Does he peel, chop and cook the veg he grows?

"Actually, yes," he tells me.

"I tend to take most of it down to the special needs club where I work and they do it there where we can all enjoy it together.

"You might not think so, but it is actually beautiful to eat and knowing where it has come from makes it even better.''

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