Giant vegetable growing helping world record holder recover from five cardiac arrests

Malvern Autumn Show - Giant Vegetable Grower Gary Heeks.jpg
8th August 2019

Colossus cabbages the size of cars, massive marrows, long leeks and incredible carrots will be a feast for the eyes once again at the Malvern Autumn Show in 2019.

For one grower giant vegetables are helping him recover from a terrifying near-death experience.

In 2018 five Guinness World Records were smashed at the CANNA UK National Giant Vegetables Championship, including one by Gary Heeks who became known as the ‘Celery King’ after taking the record for the heaviest celery, with his weighing in at 42kg.

Breaking a world record is a heart-stopping moment for anyone – but for Gary growing giant veg is helping him get back to full health again after suffering five cardiac arrests on his 57th birthday this year.

“I actually died on my birthday,” said Gary, from Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. “I was just sat opening my cards and I said to my wife Valerie ‘I don’t feel right’.”

Gary collapsed and his daughter Rachael acted quickly, giving her dad CPR for 30 minutes until paramedics arrived and he was transported to the hospital.

“It must have been terrifying for them,” said Gary, who works as an estate manager.

Gary had another four cardiac arrests in hospital before he was able to be stabilised and given an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD), which acts as both a pacemaker and defibrillator.

Since then Gary has been using his two allotments and a two-acre patch of land where he grows his giant veg – or “big girls” as he calls them – to help him stay fit following his health scare.

This week is National Allotment Week, which runs from August 12-18 and celebrates the benefits of having an allotment, Gary believes that beyond growing they can play an important role in both mental and physical health.

“I really do think allotments and growing are good for your health,” says Gary.

“I feel so good after I have been tending to my vegetables. When you’re there you just have no worries, it’s my little escape.

“The doctors told me to do what I can, and if I get tired I just sit down.”

Gary has been growing vegetables in allotments for 17 years, but has only been taking on the challenge of giant vegetables for the last five. It’s not a simple task and he says it takes a full year to properly grow a world record worthy vegetable.

“After the Autumn Show in September, that’s when the work starts for the next year,” he said.

Gary prepares the ground by putting manure on it and covering the ground with black polythene sheets for the winter. This stops weeds growing and allows the worms to work which increases the amount of water and air the soil gets, making it a more suitable ground for growing giant veg.

Then in January Gary will begin sowing his seeds using simple multi-purpose compost while also making sure the land is irrigated before putting up polytunnels.

There is a science to growing giant veg, but one of the more important things Gary says he does is to give them daily words of encouragement.

“I talk to them every morning and say ‘come on my beauties, you look incredible’,” says Gary.

“I have been told I’m losing it,” he laughed.

Gary is currently growing a giant marrow and red cabbage, and the latter he thinks could well bag him another world record at the Malvern Autumn Show.

He will be amongst growers from all over the country hoping to break more world records on September 28-29 at the Three Counties Showground. 

This includes Tim Saint, who actually introduced Gary to giant vegetable growing.

Tim is the current world record holder for the heaviest red cabbage which weighed in at a whopping 23.7kg.

Entering numerous categories this year, Tim says his growing is “going well” and that his is hopeful of another successful year.

“You never know how things are going to go, but the pumpkins I’m growing are looking pretty big right now, so I’d hope to do well again this year.”

The man who makes the decision on who takes home the trophies is competition judge, measurer and weigher, Martyn Davis.

Armed with a tape measure and specialist scales Martyn has been ruling over giant veg since the national championships started at Malvern.

He qualified as a judge in 2005 after taking the exam and practical test with the National Vegetable Society – and he is expecting this year to be another huge success.

“It’s always a surprise. The veg just gets bigger and bigger,” said Martyn.

“We never know what to expect when we come here. Last year we broke a few records and I’d be surprised if a world record is not broken again this year.”

For the first time ever the 2019 show will welcome officials from Guinness World Records and on the Sunday they will verify any records achieved at the show and award the coveted title to growers.

Diana Walton, Three Counties Showground Head of Shows, said: “The championships are a real jewel in the crown of the Malvern Autumn Show and a real favourite amongst visitors.

“There are always some amazing vegetables grown that travel in from all over the country. They really are unbelievable and we are all looking forward to seeing this year’s entries again and maybe even some more world record breakers.”

Entries for the CANNA UK National Giant Vegetables Championship are open until September 20 and those interested can download an entry form at www.malvernautumn.co.uk/compete