Bernard's big obsession

Meet Bernard Lavery, Britain's top big-vegetable grower. By Jim White

Bernard Lavery is having difficulty with a cabbage. He has lifted it from the soil and it is lying in a wheelbarrow, wrapped in a cotton sheet. But he needs help manhandling it into the back of his van. The cabbage is the size of a small chest of drawers.

"Heart-breaking, that," Bernard says as the 65lb vegetable is heaved into the van, leaving a trail of bruised and broken leaves on the ground. "I got the world record for a cabbage the Guinness people weighed at a big ceremony at Alton Towers a couple of years ago. There were about 5,000 people there, and it weighed 124lb. But I reckon I must have left at least five pound on the ground in broken leaves as we got it in and out the van that day. Five pound. It makes you weep."

Broken leaves notwithstanding, Bernard Lavery is the country's top big- vegetable grower. He holds 15 world records for tremendous tubers, brobdingnagian brassicas and very, very broad beans.

"Fifteen world records," he says, beaming. "A record in itself."

Once he even held the heavyweight championship of big-veg cultivation: the world record for a pumpkin.

"It was 1989 and I had this one which weighed 710 pound. I held the record for three days before this Canadian came in and beat me," he says. "Those are the only three days in history, by the way, when the pumpkin record has been held this side of the Atlantic."

Growing big veg is not a hobby for Bernard Lavery. It is not, as it is for the massive-leek men of Northumberland, a little something he does in the back garden after his shift. Right now, as the season reaches its climax, he is at it in his nursery 18 hours a day, bringing his enormous crop to fruition. This is his business, developing ever-larger veg so he can sell the seeds to those who have caught the big bug.

Bernard Lavery seeds are on sale, in brown-paper packets with his cheery face on the front, at most garden centres; this weekend, at shows across the country, proud cultivators of onions the size of basketballs and carrots built like ballistic missiles should give thanks to Bernard.

"To get a prize-winner it's about 25 per cent culture, 25 per cent luck and 50 per cent the seed," he says. "The question I'm most often asked is: 'Don't they taste woody?' Well, that could be true of a normal veg left to grow big. But what you have here are vegetables grown from a seed that has the genetic capabilities of growing big. Harvested at the normal time, they taste brilliant. And I think they could have very great possibilities for farmers, yielding twice as much from the same amount of ground. In the Third World especially, I see a huge application."

The Lavery nursery, the nerve centre of Bernard's herculean harvest, is an extraordinary sight at this time of year. Deep in the Lincolnshire flatlands, it is reached down a cinder track, snaking through what, from a distance, appears to be a row of poplars planted to shield things from prying eyes. As you get closer, it becomes clear that the poplars are actually maize plants, 15 feet tall with ears of corn up to two feet long. Behind are sunflowers, bowed under the weight of heads that are 26 inches wide; a row of green beans the size of babies' arms; and, further on, monster pumpkins like a package tour of Brit beer-bellies down at the beach.

Bernard spends his entire summer here, abandoning his home and his wife in South Wales, sleeping in a caravan on site when he isn't looking after his crop. "It's like going away to sea or something," he says. "In the summer you don't get home, even at the weekends. But it's a job and you compensate in the winter, when things are quieter."

He spends his summers in Lincolnshire because it is the place to grow big veg. It's not that the climate is particularly good, but there are plenty of cheap glasshouses.

On a tour through one of his greenhouses, we happen upon a water melon lying on the ground amid a spaghetti of pipes that keep it constantly fed and watered. "I've got the British record for water melon," he says, bending down to stroke the skin lovingly. "Thirty-six pound. This'll treble that bugger, no question. It's 100 pound, easy."

It's been a good summer, then?

"For water melon, certainly," he says. "And for tomatoes and pumpkin. Not so much for root crops. But the summer's just part of the equation. There are other things you want: no late frost in the spring, an Indian summer to bring things on at the end."

Drought isn't a problem because Bernard has built a system of hoses that snakes through his glasshouses and fields, delivering water straight to the root as a computer dictates.

"Halved my water bill, too," he grins.

Given the lengths growers go to, the efforts they put into their craft, it is no surprise the big-veg showing circuit has spawned one of the most cutthroat rivalries known to modern man. In Northumberland large dogs are recruited to protect leeks from overnight theft; in South Wales fisticuffs and attacks on rivals' nurseries are common.

"There are all sorts of tales of skullduggery, but I've only had one problem," says Bernard. "When I was in South Wales, someone got into my greenhouse and snapped off all my cucumbers about three days before a big show. Luckily, I never found out who it was. I was that upset, I don't know what I'd have done. It's very sad when people lower themselves to that degree."

So far, this year's Lavery crop has reached fruition undamaged. But it won't clean up when the show circuit begins this week.

"I won't be showing this year," he says. "I'm a judge in a lot of them, so it would be a little hypocritical for me to take money in prizes. Besides, I've done it: it's someone else's turn now. A lot of showmen are very secretive about their methods. I think a gardener that takes his secrets to the grave has wasted his life. If I can tell someone how to do something and they come back and beat me, I'm more proud than if I won everything myself."

If he has no intention of showing, though, why is he loading the giant cabbage into his van?

"I'm off to London to do the Big Breakfast. I'm on with that Robbie from Take That," he explains as he anchors the cabbage to stop it breaking on the trip. "I expect they only want me on to take the piss."

Bernard Lavery's book How to Grow Giant Vegetables is published by Harper Collins on 11 September. The UK Giant Vegetable, Fruit and Flower Championships are at Baytree Nurseries, Spalding, Lincs, 29 Sep-1 Oct (01406 370242)

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