Class will out, so they say, and so it proved at this years Malvern Autumn Show. If any of the CANNA Giant Vegetable entries at the Three Counties Show Ground embodied their grower’s titanic effort, skill and character then doubtless those veg would be the kin of Dale Toten. A high five of victories went the way of Ston Easton Hall’s superlative gardener. Giant squash, watermelon, carrot, chilli and parsnip gongs all in the bag! The veg themselves, too big to bag. Causing yet more commotion than the bag of gongs and veg-not-in-a-bag – a UK Record, 97kg watermelon and World Record, 420g chilli!
How on earth did this come to pass? Oh I think you know! Skill; in spades (and other garden equipment). Knowledge; all the dirt. Application; lose yourself to plants. And we’re immensely proud to say that trickling away beneath all this enterprise were AutoPot Watering Systems.
So giant veg are no happy accident with respect to nurture, but what of their nature? With most things in the natural world ancestry and genetics predisposes succession. So it goes with giant veg, the seeds of whose parents are veritable treasure to growers like Dale. His giant squash that weighed in at an exceptionally robust 298.7kg was grown from the seed of a 531kg fruit produced in the USA in 2015. The 97kg, UK Record breaking, ‘Carolina Cross’ watermelon hailed from another US antecedent, this time its parent was a 135kg fruit. Dale sourced his carrot seed from a grower who cultivates the perfect straight, long carrots, reselecting them for vigour in order to strengthen the “bloodline” of his huge orange horns. Hence Dale thought they may be worth a try as giant veg, 6.4kg of growth later came his sweet vindication. Parsnip primacy, to the tune of a 4.7kg root, was achieved thanks to a punt on the seed of a vigorous F1 strain called “Picador”. Then there was the 420g World Record Chilli. The previous world record holding Poblano begat Dale’s thumping specimen, the most prodigious fruit from the eight plants he had under cultivation.
Welcoming interest, supporting other growers and believing in their endeavours is essential to creating a thriving gardening community. Dale has been extremely generous with his time and very forthcoming with information regarding his achievements. Unafraid to share in his record breaking exploits he took us through the growing arrangements for his chilli and watermelon.
The blockbusting Poblano was grown in a deep, raised bed in Dale’s small greenhouse at home. Heavily mulched with cork-rich Mills Ultimate Soil the plants thrived in their large spacings. Requiring rather more room, the watermelon was grown in a large glasshouse in a sloping, south facing bed at Ston Easton Hotel. A large pit was dug out and filled with a mixture of Mills Light, and Ultimate soils. Together with generous helpings of Ecothrive Charge and Mycorrmax. This substrate helped keep the main roots from direct contact with Dale’s own soil in the initial growth stages. Melons are especially susceptible to root disease so bringing the plants on to a point where they are strong enough to handle the foibles of underlying soil is important.
Propelling a giant squash to growth of nearly 300kg required a monumental effort, a huge bed, heavily mulched with coco-peat and a watering system that could cater to very specific needs. The immense squash plants can cover 1000 sq ft each with every single leaf node producing roots. Though Dale estimates that his plant covered around half this area, 500sq ft remained a vast expanse of plant and root zone to irrigate. It created a problem in that different areas of the plant might be using differing amounts of water at any given time. Traditional irrigation can only water uniformly over any given area, but the AQUAbox Spyders allowed each square foot of the plants 500 sq ft rootzone to be independently irrigated exactly when needed. With the AQUAvalve in the Spyder Kits the supply is only replenished once the plants have drawn out all the existing water and nutrient solution.
In the glasshouse, along with the watermelon and squash, grew the carrot and parsnip. Herein lies a bit of artistry in juggling plant needs. All types of veg have differing ideals, so to grow lots of different produce under one roof means nursing things like carrots through the hot spells in which melon thrive. This years intermittent but powerful hot spells meant a constant battle; shading, watering and venting. It’s tribute to Dale’s skill that everything he took to the show was either dug or cut on the morning of the show. Nothing had stopped growing prior to the big day.
Earlier in the season Dale had been cautiously optimistic about prizewinning potential and looking to learn lessons for future giant veg campaigns. In terms of confidence he was most encouraged by the watermelon. Taking into account the extreme heat of summer, and with this being a first effort using AutoPot, Dale wasn’t sure the squash would do all that well. The sizes of carrots and parsnips are obviously impossible to assess until the day you dig them, so up until Dale got them on the bench at Malvern he didn’t have any
idea they could win. Though he knew the chilli was big while on the plant Dale couldn’t judge the all important weight until it was cut.
Far be it from us to shame the physiques of some giant veg but it’s fair to say that not all of them are lookers. Obviously all veg have irregularities and these are in no way detrimental in the flavour parade (keep digging!) but some giant efforts can suffer from especially bad blemishes or discolouration. Here Dale has succeed markedly in cultivating veg whose appearance is excellent and simply larger than life. With regard to the shape and appearance of the fruits he tends to try and choose well shaped female flowers to pollinate, and cull anything that goes a weird shape.
Perhaps jealous of the melon’s sublime appearance the parsnip did attempt to sabotage proceedings (as parsnips so often do). Whilst loading for Malvern the team of four carrying the melon lost a member down the hole from which the parsnip had sprung. Dale blames himself for having removed the parsnip from the ground leaving a hole, but I think we all know what parsnips are like. Inches from disaster, teetering on the edge of the abyss the guys summoned the spirit of Cliffhanger to recover and make it an otherwise smooth journey to the show.
Praise be that the parsnip pothole was overcome or else Dale would have been denied his show highlight – the watermelon weigh-in. The U.K. record had stood for a long time, and had already been beaten on the day by the incumbent holder Ian Neale. Ian raised the bar to 76.5kg only to see his melon leapfrogged (what a mental image) by Dale’s whose became the first over 90kg in the U.K.. Whilst immensely proud of having broken a World Record with his chilli Dale remains very humble. Chillies are quite a new proposition in giant veg circles and he freely concedes that the record will continue to rise regularly for a while, with more and more growers concentrating on the right strain.
Plaudits won, what does one do with these massive entries? What fate awaits them? With the development of giant
mantelpieces lagging to an embarrassing degree, there’ll be no home for giant veg fireside. Instead its time to go back to the start, all of Dale’s winning veg will be kept for seed saving purposes. The fruits will have seeds harvested, whereas the carrot will be replanted and allowed to run to seed.
It’s been a great pleasure working with Dale and we very much look forward to further exploits in years to come. You can follow Dale’s progress on Insta, dale_toten.