If you’ve spent enough of your waking hours in the gaping abyss of Twitter, there’s a chance you’ve come across at least one photo from Gerald Stratford, a 72-year-old British retiree who spends his days growing “big veg” (that’s “big vegetables,” for the uninformed). Always with a twinkle in his eye and hands full of his freshly harvested bounty, Stratford shares his gardening adventures on Twitter in rarely punctuated tweets, and is constantly going massively viral for everything just mentioned.
Stratford, who previously worked as a butcher and a barge controller on the River Thames, has gardened for all his life, but it wasn’t until last year that he became internet famous for it. He joined Twitter in early 2019, with the encouragement of some gardening friends and the help of his partner Elizabeth and nephew Stephen. In May 2020, two months after the COVID-19 crisis was declared a pandemic and the United Kingdom first entered lockdown mode, Stratford had his first big hit: photos of himself wearing a jaunty all-pink outfit in his garden, showing off some veg, with the caption, “My first early rocket very pleased.” (“Rocket” is what they call arugula in the U.K.)
The tweet was an instant hit; as Stratford recalls, his phone was inundated with notifications, to the point where he had to call up his nephew to ask what was going on. In the weeks and months that followed, the likes, retweets, and followers racked up (as did the number of people who kept referring to Stratford as “king”), and they haven’t really stopped since. Now, with more than 293,000 followers — at least 35,000 of whom were accumulated in the weeks since I spoke to him for this piece — Stratford finds himself enjoying a newfound platform that few other septuagenarian gardeners can claim. Recently, he announced that he will be publishing a book, and he even appeared in a Highsnobiety advertisement for a new Gucci collection.
I caught up with the big veg king over Zoom in late March, when spring had finally begun to, well, spring. From his house in the Cotswolds in south central England, wearing a vegetable-print hoodie — a Christmas gift, he said — Stratford shared some gardening tips, his cheery outlook on life, and how utterly unfathomable he finds everything that has happened to him.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Eater: Hello, Gerald. How are you doing?
Gerald Stratford: I’m fine. We’re just breaking into spring now. Getting into spring is a nice time. Getting very busy. The greenhouses are getting filled up with all sorts of lovely things.
Did you have a busy winter?
I’ve made myself busy. I’m not a person who just turns off; there’s always something to make, always something to repair, something to keep going. I like it. I don’t want it any other way.
What are you planting this spring?
I’ve been sowing with Elizabeth, my partner, since last December, in a heated greenhouse. We’ve got onions, leeks, cauliflowers, cabbage, peppers, chilies, tomatoes, and anytime now I will start putting zucchinis in, and a lot of the fast-growing summer vegetables. Up on my allotment — are you familiar with the word allotment? It’s a community garden, a piece of land which is set into sections, and you rent a small section and grow vegetables on it — I’ve been getting everything ready, checking out the fruit. Anytime now, I will be planting my onions, parsnips, carrots, kohlrabi, all sorts of nice stuff. You asked me what I grow; it’s easier for me to say what I don’t grow.
Is there anything you don’t grow, either because it’s too difficult, or you just don’t like it?
No. If something is hard to grow, that’s a challenge for me to make it grow. I try and grow a different vegetable each year. This year I’m growing a gourd called a snake gourd. It’s like a small zucchini, but it hangs. You grow it up the frame, and it hangs down like a snake. Last year I grew a tromboncino.
What do you like best about gardening?
I’m 72, I’ve got aches and pains, I’ve got arthritis, I’ve got two metal knees. But the physical activity keeps me fit. I don’t need to go to the gym. And just the pleasure — it’s very therapeutic when I’m tending my vegetables. It’s just nice. All your worries go away.
Do you have any gardening tips for beginners?
Never, ever get frustrated. If things aren’t going as you planned, stop. Go and do something totally different and then come back to it with renewed vigor. So if I dig in the garden, don’t spend two hours doing the same thing — just 20 minutes, and then go and do something else in the garden for another 20 minutes, and then something else for 20 minutes, because you will be using different parts of your body for different jobs. Don’t get frustrated, because that’s when you make mistakes. Treat life in general like that, I think.
What sparked your interest in big veg in particular?
It was a natural progression because, first and foremost, I like gardening. I spent a lifetime as a serious fisherman, and I’d had enough fishing, I’d caught enough fish. At times, fishing can be selfish: it’s just you, and everybody else is forgotten about. So I decided I was going to cut back and just do the gardening. That’s when I started to get really interested in growing big veg. If you know anybody who goes fishing, they catch a fish that big, and the next one, they want to be a little bit bigger. I sort of brought that into my garden. When I was planting a carrot, I thought, I wonder how big I could grow that carrot, or, I wonder how many potatoes I could grow in that bucket?
What’s the biggest thing you’ve grown so far?
On a national scale, they’re not huge, but I’ve grown a 150-pound pumpkin. I’ve had an 80-pound zucchini. I’ve had tromboncinos over 40 feet long. Three-pound tomatoes, 9-pound cucumbers, carrots over three feet long, parsnips over four feet long. Each year, I keep a diary. If I can grow something that much bigger than last year, it’s a success. If records come along, that’s just a bonus.
Do you have a favorite fruit or veg to grow?
I like growing potatoes and onions, but not at the expense of the other vegetables. I give all my veg 100 percent. But I do like things which grow underground. There’s always an element of doubt. You could have a potato coming out of the ground with lovely foliage, and you think it’s going to be good, and you dig them up, and it’s one or two little potatoes. You go to the next one, and it’s a little spindly plant, and you think, “Well, this is going to be a waste of time.” And it could be filled with potatoes. You never know what’s below the ground. I forget the famous American actor who said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” [Elizabeth murmurs a name in the background.] Forrest Gump! Sometimes gardening is like that.
Do you do much cooking with your veg?
Yes. We’re almost self-sufficient in veg. I grow lots of everything, and I give my children and friends and neighbors vegetables. We also make lots of jams, chutneys, pickles, and preserves. Last year, for the first time, we bought a small dehydrator. That just changed everything. We now do our own sun-dried tomatoes; they’re equal to anything you can buy. We’ve done tomatoes, sweet peppers, chilis, apples, pears, grapes, tromboncino, there’s so much.
Elizabeth and me, we both like the kitchen, but Elizabeth takes charge. Occasionally I’ll cook a meal, more in the winter — I do fabulous slow-cooked meals with lots of veg. We’re not vegetarians, but we do like our veg. Three, sometimes five times a week, we eat salad.
What’s your favorite dish to eat?
I like all veg, but I think the finest vegetable in the world — it’s a fruit, really — is a tomato. A fresh, room-temperature tomato, with Himalayan pink salt sprinkled on it, is a beautiful taste. Also, new potatoes steamed with a little bit of mint when you’re cooking them, and just before you eat them, a knob of butter. Oh, you try it, it’s lovely.
What do you do with all the produce you can’t eat?
A few hundred meters from me is an old people’s home. I donate vegetables to those people, so the chef can cook for the less well off. We’re not well off, but there are some people worse. If I can give people some of my local produce, why not?
On our allotment, there are over 40 people growing vegetables. If each person donated one carrot, one potato, one parsnip, one turnip, and one tomato once a month, there would be more than enough vegetables to give to, say, a soup kitchen. That could be a good thing to do. I’ve been trying to work it out. When I’m up the allotment, I’m gonna start talking to people.
How much of your time does gardening take up?
Oh, all day, every day. I help Elizabeth when she asks for my assistance, whether it’s in our flower garden or in our home. The rest of the time, I’m in my garden. If it’s raining, I’ve got a large shed at the bottom of the garden — I call it my “cave” — where I spend a lot of time making or repairing things.
How about Twitter? How much time do you spend there nowadays?
I think it’s averaging just under five hours a day at the moment. I’m mainly answering questions, trying to help people with their gardening. If I can help somebody grow something better than they have, I carry on. I like it.
How does it feel having more than 250,000 followers now?
I can’t explain, because I’ve never been in this situation before. Though I’m an extroverted person, I’m not one who’s been in the limelight before. I’m treading on fresh soil every day.
I’ve made so many friends. And I’ve set a precedent to do something each week; I think my followers now are expecting it. I work really hard to try and keep the content good and exciting if I can and to try new things. A few weeks ago, I had a tweet from a deaf lady who couldn’t hear what I was talking about in my short videos. As Elizabeth and I were discussing it, an American gentleman came through on Twitter and said, “There’s an app that can help you do this.” So we now tweet our videos with captions to help deaf people. They’ve got a right to enjoy themselves the same as we have.
With this big audience expecting good content, as you said, do you feel any kind of pressure weighing on you?
Yes, there is a little bit of pressure, but it’s nice pressure. It’s pressure which, almost by accident, I’ve created myself. Pressure is a manifested word, isn’t it? The pressure I’m under is nothing. I felt incredible pressure when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer five years ago. That taught me a lot about overcoming pressure. I had hormone therapy and radiotherapy. Last summer, the oncologist gave me the all clear. He said, “Gerald, we don’t need to see you again.” That was so nice to hear. I’m sure my garden helped me.
Are you keen to get on any of the other social platforms?
My youngest daughter mentioned Instagram, so I went on Instagram, and that has just taken off for some reason.
I have thought of TikTok; it might happen, but at this moment, I’ve got one or two other things happening. What I mustn’t do is spend all day on social media and not do my gardening. Because without my garden, I have nothing. It’s my garden which created me, if you like.
Clearly you bring a lot of joy and warmth to people, both in your life and on Twitter. Why do you think so many people around the world love following you and seeing what you’re up to in your garden?
I can’t really explain it, I really can’t. I’ve got one or two theories, like with lockdown and the pandemic, people have done a lot of soul searching over the last year. Whatever people say, it’s going to change our lives. I like to think I’ve been quite lucky. I stay in my house, my garden; I go to the allotment; we have our shopping delivered. The only time I go out is to the health center to pick our pills up once a month. Some people have had it really hard, and I feel for them. But just hang in, it will get better.
I read that you’re interested in writing a children’s book and maybe even hosting a program about veg and fruit gardening. Can you tell me more about that?
We have gardening programs, but I really think there’s room for a vegetable program on its own. In this country, there’s enough skill to create, say, a 12-part series once a year. I’m not saying I’ll do it, because I think I’m too old. But there’s somebody in this country — somebody younger, with lots of enthusiasm — who could go from garden to garden, so you cover the whole country. And on that garden program, you could show how to cook your vegetables.
And how to dehydrate, how to preserve?
Yes, yes! In my parents’ time it was just a natural thing, everybody knew how to preserve. Now an awful lot of people have lost that. We’re so lucky to know how to do it.
But you wouldn’t necessarily want to be the one to host this program?
Well, I’m 72. I’d like to get involved, but I think there’s an awful lot of work, and my energy levels are taken up just with my garden. It wouldn’t be fair on me or the audience. I like to do things 200 percent. I wouldn’t want to be involved in something which wasn’t very good. I want to be very good.
Is there anything else you dream of doing in this lifetime, whether related to gardening or not?
No. I’ve always had a dream of catching a king salmon in Canada. That is still a dream. But if it doesn’t happen, I’m more than happy tending my carrots.