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From Issue #55 November 6, 2014

Take a Leek, Any Size

Tumescent vegetables are big business and spur on healthy competition.

By Chris Stokel-Walker Twitter icon 

It was the sound of the guard dog’s bark as it slammed up against the side of its cage that set the chickens off clucking. And once they began their morning call, all hell broke loose.

“Ignore them,” said John Soulsby, the owner of the home, the dog, the chickens, and the polytunnels I was here to see, where Soulsby grows leeks as large as the arm of a particularly well-built bodybuilder. But it was hard to ignore the snarling dog that, but for a wire fence, would be at my throat, and had caused a rude intrusion into the still silence of a Saturday morning in the English countryside village of Kibblesworth, just a couple of miles from urban civilization.

Soulsby, a 63-year-old businessman who owns a successful garden center a 30-minute drive away, also chairs the UK North East Horticultural Society and has a successful sideline as one of the country’s best competitive vegetable breeders. He fell into gardening through a biographical invention not of his making.

His wife, who modeled for UK media, was interviewed in the local newspaper in the late 1960s. “The reporter said her hobby was gardening with her boyfriend,” explains Soulsby, barely audible over the peals of poultry. “At that time we weren’t gardening; we had a garden, but we weren’t serious contenders. The article said I was one of the top gardeners in the region — which I wasn’t — and the local guys took the mickey out of me. I said I’d get stuck in, and within three years I was the top gardener in the region.”

Which in part explains the Garden House, his £750,000 home on a hill — five times the average price in the area — overlooking verdant fields. It kickstarted an interest in horticulture that has stuck with Soulsby nearly five decades on.

From small seeds

Soulsby specializes in growing giant vegetables for exhibitions and is regarded as one of the foremost minds in competitive vegetable growing.1 It’s a highly competitive world, with 10 to 12 annual events held around the country. But Soulsby’s first vegetative competition were in flower growing.

A pub near Soulsby’s home, the Plough, held a competition every Sunday. “It didn’t matter if it was a daffodil or a rose, anything at all,” says Soulsby. “If it was in your garden on a Sunday morning you could cut it and take it along for a bit of fun.” Entries cost 20 pence apiece and were placed into beer glasses at the end of the bar, and at lunchtime, they asked any woman who happened to be having lunch which flower she liked the best, and it was declared the winner.

Competition winners at the Plough could win the pot of £2 or £3 for a single flower, at a time when Soulsby says the weekly wage in the area wasn’t much more than that. “I started taking it serious to make sure I won,” Soulsby admits.

He honed his growing technique, and within four years he was one of the nation’s best flower growers. But a narrowly missed car crash put paid to his flower-growing career.

“I was traveling to a show, and a child ran out on the road,” he explains matter-of-factly. “I had a van full of flowers. The child ran out onto the road, I had to hit the brakes hard, and every flower was snapped. I’d spent a year growing those flowers.

“I thought ‘I’m not putting up with that,’ and I switched to vegetables, because I can put them in the trunk of a car. I went to leeks because leek shows at the time were everywhere. Everyone classes leeks as the king of vegetables.” Soulsby says there were three or four leek shows just in his village. He began competing and began winning.

The world of competitive vegetable growing has dwindled over the decades, but there remains a small, dedicated group of growers who enjoy both winning and the social side of the hobby. Some, like Soulsby, even make money from their pastime. He sells individual plants to fellow growers for £100 a plant; competition winners can earn £500 from a single event. As Joe Keeler, a competition judge, explains, “for some people gardening’s a hobby. To us, it’s our life.”

John Soulsby

Firm, fine specimens

Let’s be real here: leeks look like penises. As with phallic architecture, and the constant desire of investors to build bigger and bigger skyscrapers, there has to be at least some subconscious awareness of this in the competitive leek growing world. Girth and length are key components of a prizewinning leek; weightiness is important, and as Joe Keeler tells me, points are taken away for softness in the base. (A common occurrence, seemingly: in the leek-growing world there is a trade-off between size and firmness.)

I don’t broach the subject. Not with Soulsby, not with Keeler. Not with any of the old men, hunched over and shuffling into the community center where the North East Horticultural Society seminar on growing large vegetables is held. It seems rude to ask.

Competitive leek growing was immensely popular in UK mining towns, providing an escape from a dark, dank world for manual laborers who worked long, hard hours. Some time in the garden, connecting with nature, engaging their competitive spirits, isn’t something to mock. Nor is the effort modern vegetable growers put into their hobby.

John Soulsby starts his day at 6 a.m. in his garden, tending to the leeks and chickens and feeding the guard dog. He goes to work at 8 a.m., returning around 6 p.m., and spends another two hours in his home garden. He’s not alone.

“I get emails daily from people from July through to now, with people saying how many shows they’ve won with my leeks throughout the country, and obviously that helps spread the word and other people come on to you,” says Soulsby. “It’s a perfect feeling to win a show, but it’s an even better feeling to know people are winning with your stock. It’s good. You get pride out of that.” He shuffles his feet slightly, looking down at the ground. “It is good.”

Youth versus experience

Though Soulsby says he is hyper-competitive, and in spite of the guard dog posted to prevent any would-be saboteurs, and which bears its teeth at me every time I pass, those who remain in his rare world do work together. When Soulsby broke the Guinness world record with his 18 lb., 5 oz. leek in 2007, he shared in the glory, passing on the record-breaking strain to other growers.

Sure enough, his giant leek was unseated by a 20 lb., 5 oz. whopper a few years later, grown by John Pearson, then 63 years old, who had used the Soulsby cultivar. The latest record-breaker, grown by Paul Rochester, is even bigger: 21 lb., 5 oz.

“Any leek that’s winning shows, I usually get my hands on it, and make that available to anyone in the country,” says Soulsby. “It does help people get their hands on the winning leeks.” That’s different from the past, when champion leek growers would steadfastly refuse to share their prizewinning cuttings. “When I first started, there were certain strains of leek you just couldn’t get your hands on,” Soulsby says.

This year’s French champion exhibition leek was another one grown from grass supplied by Soulsby. It was smuggled out of the country — transport of green tissue is forbidden without passing through customs — while other samples Soulsby sent out last year were returned undelivered.

Being the paterfamilias of the leek growing world suits Soulsby well. As he prepares to host the North East Horticultural Society vegetable seminar at Stanley Civic Hall, many men come up to him nervously, passing him slips of paper or sealed envelopes. Inside are their orders for his leek strains: they want prizewinners too. Smiling benevolently and slipping the papers into his jacket pocket, he looks for all the world like a capo dei capi.

But that’s not a role he wants alone. “I don’t exhibit as much now,” he laments. “I haven’t had time the last three or four years to exhibit leeks, for the simple fact that I’m too busy at work.”

“Young” whippersnappers will have to keep one eye over their shoulders. Soulsby currently supplies the baby leeks that grow into record-breaking monsters, rather than entering competitions himself, but he envisages a time that he’ll return to the game.

Looking across a row of leeks, stripped back to their core, giant outer layers cascading out like an exploded firework, he says, “I’ve grown every variety of fruit, hundreds of varieties of flowers, herbs, and all the varieties of vegetables. I’ve been in the top class of vegetable growers as well in my years. I don’t grow as much now but I will do when I retire. I’ll pick it back up when I retire.”

Photos by the author.

  1. As proof of his expertise, he has his own instructive DVD, Growing Exhibition Pot Leeks With John Soulsby. Its 101-minute running time culminates — spoiler alert — in the confirmation of his world record-breaking leek in 2007. 

Chris Stokel-Walker is a UK-based freelance writer for the Economist, the Sunday Times, the BBC, and BuzzFeed.

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