There is something wonderfully compelling about the bizarre, the obsessive and the freaky which may explain why even our daughter joined us on the sofa to shriek with laughter at the programme on the Living Channel last Sunday. It was all about growing and showing vegetables in the United Kingdom. Before any readers get defensive, I hasten to add that we have the utmost respect for the skills required and the proud tradition of competing for prizes in various vegetable classes. It is just a tradition which has largely bypassed us in New Zealand so we are bound to find the proud woman holder of the title of World’s Best Potato Grower faintly amusing.
Growing vegetables for show does not have a lot to do with eating them. In fact eating them was never mentioned. Growing 900 onions in the quest for the best sets of five perfectly matched specimens, each weighing 250 grams, does leave one with a rather eyewateringly large excess of produce for ahome grower. And what exactly are you going to do with the other 85 heads of celery which did not make the cut when you selected the best five to show? These are celery plants which have been grown entirely under cover, nursed, mollycoddled, blanched and fussed over until they can reach a massive 150 cm high or even more. They are hardly going to fit in the fridge. But once you have seen them being lovingly washed in a large bath of soapy water and gently groomed with a soft toothbrush, you realise this has nothing to do with home vegetable gardening. It is more akin the vegetable equivalent of the prestigious Crufts Dog Show but without the social pretensions.
There are rigid rules as to what is acceptable and what is not. Immaculate, matched onions are presented with a neat tie of raffia to hold the trimmed top tidily (which sparked a comment from the show host along the lines of: “Nothing finishes a perfect onion like a sheaf of raffia,”) but woe betide anybody who steps over the line to flamboyance. A modest knot may be required, a bow is enough to get you disqualified – or so the husband tells me from another show he watched.
Carrots and parsnips are popular crops but growing them takes special techniques and even then you may not get specimens with precision tapering, let alone perfectly matched sets of three identical specimens. Don’t be thinking that you can win with garden specimens grown in soils. These are grown in drums. First these drums are packed with coarse sand. A tube is then used to extract a perfectly straight column in the sand which is filled with the highest quality, fine garden mix. It has to be sieved garden mix because any untoward chunks could cause the plant’s roots to kink or bend. This is a serious business where timing, technique and crop management is critical. Carrots should have a nicely rounded base and are exhibited without their roots. Parsnips should be perfectly tapered and are measured and exhibited with the long tap root attached in its entirety.
We were riveted, as only holiday-makers on a bleak and windy summer Sunday afternoon can be, to learn that in order to clean and present your carrots or parsnips, you have to gently sponge them in a circular motion. If you rub them up and down, you will scratch the outer skin and cause blemishes. That is a piece of new information which just may or may not be useful at some point in my life.
Presumably it is the exhibitionists who grow the freaks. There was an earlier series on growing extreme vegetables – the parsnip, I was told, grew in a length of downpipe which ran three stories high. In this country, the giant pumpkin growing competitions are relatively common and most of us realise that said competitive pumpkins are not destined for the dining table, being of value only as stock food. Size and weight are everything in the freak classes. Beauty, uniformity and perfection count for nought.
Prize money does not count either. It is fame, glory and recognition. Most of the vegetable competitions in the UK (and there are legions of them) carry prizes of a few pounds only. The costs of competing are hugely greater than any financial reward – best grade seed only, packets of potting mix, washed sand, peat, special fertilisers and sprays and that is just for starters. Mark was a little put out to see that the competitive celery grower had a state of the art glasshouse which left anything we have here completely in the shade despite the fact that we have been professional growers of plants for the last few decades.
This is not to say that we don’t have competitions here. Mark recalls judging the vegetables at some gathering in Otorohanga where he was a guest speaker some years ago. I am sure I must have done it for the local Country Women’s Institute here at some stage. Maybe we are just of more pragmatic stock in this country. I am pretty sure that the vegetables I have seen exhibited here were actually edible and were grown in gardens. This is a very different kettle of fish to show vegetables.
First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.