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  Inside Out - South: Monday September 13, 2004

THE WORLD OF THE GIANT VEG

Row of leeks
Chris Packham and the world of prize winning veg

Nature and wildlife are Chris Packham's loves. But the world of prize vegetable growing has, till now, eluded him. Chris finds out that size matters when it comes to his leeks with expert advice from a champ.

Around this time of year, village halls, gardening clubs and county shows are a-buzz with activity.

The labours of long summer evenings are about to bear fruit, and of course vegetable too.

And, this sort of competitive growing is deadly serious stuff.

John Trimm in poly-tunnel
John believes in tender loving care

Vegetables of all forms, size, weight, colour and texture adorn pristine linen table covers and growers suffer from a palpable air of expectation that simply cannot be good for the heart.

Getting off the ground

Chris decides that he wants part of the action too.

So where better to go than to master grower - John Trimm.

A former Southampton paramedic, John took early retirement and now works for Southampton Day Services working with adults with learning difficulties.

But, for him, his garden in Hythe is king.

John has been growing show winning vegetables for 27 years, but it took all of five years to get his first award with some stump carrots.

Since then he has progressed from village fairs to county shows like the New Forest Show to top of the heap as a national champion.

Chris laden with gardening products
Which is worse - the digging or the buying?

So now he passes his hard earned knowledge to Chris to see what he could make of the challenge of growing some prize leeks.

Of course the earth is where it all starts and stops.

Fertile earth

Whilst Chris' garden is home to a huge array of flora and fauna, it has no place for a vegetable patch. This is the first thing that John and Chris put right.

After an arm breaking visit to the local garden centre, John and Chris set to work on the all important preparation of the plot.

"First we've got to work out where your trench is going to go," John explains, "we've got the sun just going over the lower part of your house, approximately south… the leeks like to lie east to west, so we'll have our trench going this direction."

The old adage "You reap what you sow" couldn't be more apposite when it comes to prize winning veg.

So after a great deal of toil and sweat, the trenches were prepared with a copious amounts of fertiliser mixed with the fertile soil.

A week may be a long time in politics, but it's a blink of the eye when it comes to the garden. Chris had a month before inspection.

Judgment day

Chris tending his rows of leeks
Caring for the leek's trench is crucial for success

With the New Forest Show looming, Chris waits expectantly for a critical indication as to whether his leeks will be prize winning material.

John's own vegetables are not stereotypical monster veg, one-off giants that may be recording breaking for size but are often old, ugly and inedible.

His prize winners are in their prime and judged on uniformity of condition, size and overall quality.

People ask if John's prize-winners are edible, and he simply replies, "Look, all you're looking at is a vegetable grown to its absolute peak! They are the elite.

"Our way of growing vegetables is that we reproduce on allotments and in our own gardens, grown to a very high standard and it's quality... quality."

Proving size does matter John adds, "Size becomes part of it because a good big 'un will always beat a good little 'un".

So Chris has a great deal to live up to.

Rows of leeks
Entries from around the county adorn the tables

The day of the show comes, and Chris' leeks lie side by side with the master growers' from the surrounding area.

This is as nervous a setting as Crufts is for the canine world.

The judges compare shape, weight colour and form, and eventually mark their score sheets. Is Chris going to walk off with the top prize?

Hopes dashed

It was not meant to be. John had the first prize card slipped under his leeks, and well, we won't go into the question of where Chris' came in the running order.

All we can say is that they tasted better than they looked.

And lets face it - with vegetables, it has to be in the eating that the real prizes come. The produce that doesn't go into John's dinners goes to auction or sales to raise money for local charities.

He even has regular buyers "I've got one chap who loves the large onions because he slices them in half and has them in his sandwiches!"

Chris found that the competitive edge that the growing took on was a spur to his tending of the leek trenches, and the veg patch will continue to take an important slot within his garden.

Sound advice

With John, there are very few closely guarded secrets, and while there is some friendly rivalry it's a great social network spread across the UK.

Chris and John look for the winning ticket
The moment of truth for growers is nerve racking

Everyone in this growing circle is willing to share information, give advice and help beginners even at national competition level.

"Information is transferred very readily - I've found there is more mystique and voodoo involved at village shows than you ever found at the big ones! People are very open," says John.

One thing is assured; growing prize-winning vegetables that rank along side the elite of the vegetable world is not easy.

But, every journey starts out with one step, so you can draw on some of John's expert advice below, and you never know - you could be joining John (and maybe Chris) in the ranks of the show prize-winners too.

John Trimm's top tips

  • Buy the best you can. For leeks start with plants, many other vegetables start at seed. Try smaller seed companies for a smaller range but higher quality

  • Prepare your ground. Make sure it's in the best condition for your plants. If you are really serious, have a soil test done to test the pH of your ground

  • Protect your plants against disease and pests including thrip and the dreaded leek moth. Spray or better still cover the plants (Enviromesh is best product)

  • Pay special attention to your watering. You may have to adjust the amount of water on a daily basis

  • Preparing for a show. Points are given for Condition and then Uniformity. Grow them to the best quality you can and match for them for size, colour and form.

  • Ask for help! Join the National Vegetable Society - it's not all about shows, they give general gardening advice and look at issues across the whole spectrum - including areas like organic farming.
See also ...

On bbc.co.uk
Gardening

On the rest of the web
National Vegetable Society
New Forest Show
Gardening clubs and societies
Royal Horticultural Society
The Gardeners' Club

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

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