When Ian Paton first exposed his giant specimen in public, it caused pandemonium. “He’s using Viagra!” whined Hampshire pumpkin growers whose own girths paled in comparison to his 371kg fruit. “This is personal,” they complained as it was announced that he’d broken the UK’s biggest pumpkin record. The enraged competitors accused him of cheating,the squash-based acrimony made the national papers and an entire village refused to ever again enter its swollen orange globes into the charity grow-off. It was the pumpkin that tore two villages apart.
Skip forward 11 years and the UK’s humongous vegetable scene is a tad more civilised. The genetic breakthrough that enables the growing of massive soup ingredients might literally stem from a cross-bred US pumpkin strain known as the Atlantic Giant. But there are now weigh-offs across Britain featuring cash prizes that run into the thousands. There’s even a category at what is essentially the Crufts of vegetables: the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) harvest festival show. Although it is a little hard to imagine pumpkins sitting alongside prim pensioners and their immaculately manicured Granny Smiths.
“This is the pumpkin we’re entering into the RHS show,” grins Paton inside the gigantic glasshouses of his New Forest plant nursery. It’s a month before the show and, around him, huge mutoid stalks leap up to four feet in height, intertwined with greenery that’s nigh-on prehistoric in its vastness. At its centre is a pale orange life form you could hollow out and use as a tent. It’s ginormous – no wonder one could drive a village nuts. “Do you want to see the bigger one?” Paton asks. “We’re entering that into one of the other shows. You can win £10,000 at that one.”
If there’s a hot favourite to take the crown of the RHS’s biggest pumpkin, it’s Paton. By trade a mass-grower of house plants for Homebase and Sainsbury’s, Ian and his twin brother Stuart have been raising pumpkins as a hobby since the age of nine. In the years since their village-enraging UK pumpkin record, they’ve repeated the feat on a bi-annual basis and thrice taken the European record. They’ve been interviewed around the world. They’ve earned two Blue Peter badges for hollowing out pumpkins and letting presenters Konnie Huq and Zoe Salmon use them as motorboats in an attempt to cross the Solent to the Isle of Wight. Plus, while waiting in the green room of The One Show, Frank Skinner was so overawed by the brothers’ swollen gourd that he whipped out a ukulele and wrote a song on the spot. “That was a highlight,” chuckles Paton.
The odds, however, are not in Paton’s favour. Aside from the fact that growing to the size of a Smart car requires exactly the right conditions (protection from the elements, soil with perfect chemical composition, 40 pints of water a day during peak growing season), it also means that the tiniest of holes can become a chasm that tears the vegetable in half. Because he’s keen to promote the hobby, Ian has no edge over his rivals in terms of knowledge – he regularly shows them around to learn his techniques and freely offers seeds from his previous champion pumpkins. Plus, there’s no way to weigh the vegetables when they’re still attached to the plant, meaning that growers have to estimate their size based on circumference – which doesn’t always prove the most accurate. “There’s a saying in America,” says Ian, as he heads home for the day. “The bullshit stops once the tailgate drops.”
A week later, the tailgate has well and truly dropped. “What is that awful albino monster? I hope that’s in a separate category,” squawks one of the RHS show’s contestants: a Streatham twentysomething who accidentally grew a large squash and decided to enter for a lark. That one isn’t even Paton’s pumpkin. “You think that’s impressive? There’s a primary school out there with one so big they can’t get it out of the van,” says an attendant.
For the next 90 minutes, there’s a kerfuffle of pumpkins as astonishingly hefty specimens roll up in convoy. They’re so heavy that the judges have to start weighing them on the pavement. To get them into the venue, a forklift truck has to haul them from their vehicles and deposit them on to a trolley, which is then wheeled into a goods lift. Eventually, Paton’s is the only entry yet to arrive and the top two places are temporarily settled. In second place is the albino monster at 200kg. In the lead: four primary-school kids who have taken to standing by their 396kg behemoth in shock, opening and closing their mouths like goldfish.
Suddenly, there’s a round of applause and a crowd rushes the doors to see the Patons’ pumpkin arrive. It’s hauled above the scales, the forklift lowers its prongs and we have a result: “The winners are Ian and Stuart Paton with a weight of 509kg,” announces a judge, before handing Ian a rosette. Not, it seems, that it matters. “That’s never happened to me before,” he sighs in dismay. “Nearly a third lighter than I thought.” But you won. “Yes, but I’m hoping our other pumpkin will break our UK record.”
Nonetheless, elated children mob him for advice, the air is thick with congratulations and, for the next 10 minutes, we’re blinded by camera flashes. No doubt about it, to these people, Ian Paton is the rock star of the vegetable world. He might break the UK record again, he might not. But either way, at least this time his pumpkin isn’t going to upset anyone.