Gerald Stratford has a soft spot for Cadbury whole nut chocolate. The 72-year-old British vegetable farmer tells me it’s always been his favorite, ever since he was a slip of a lad snapping up snacks and fishing gear with his pocket money—money he earned helping neighbors dig their allotments, the small parcels of land rented to individuals throughout the United Kingdom. “When I was about 12 or 13, I was quite good at digging the soil,” Stratford tells me. An industrious adolescent, Stratford dug holes for other allotment members and pocketed the cash. Now retired, the self-described “typical English gentleman” still spends his time digging holes and nibbling chocolate, living out a quiet, bucolic retirement in his garden. At least, it was quiet—until the day Stratford skyrocketed to Twitter fame showcasing his “big veg.”
Stratford spent most of his life working as a barge operator on the river Thames, and he’s never really known an existence without gardening. “When you have a family [in the UK], you do the garden the same as doing the housework,” Stratford says. “It’s just part and parcel of your life, and over the years I just got more and more into growing vegetables.” Along the way, he channeled his competitive nature toward a new approach to the hobby: growing enormous vegetables like carrots, parsnips, and cabbage. “I’ve always been a very competitive person,” he says. “As a fisherman on the river Thames, I always wanted to catch the biggest fish. So it’s the same with my vegetables. Whatever I grow, I want to see how big I can get it.”
He’s claimed dozens of awards at local shows where gardeners compete for titles like Heaviest Onion, Longest Cucumber, or Straightest Carrot, all of which are determined by Royal Vegetable Society standards. “It’s quite electric,” Stratford says. “You take your vegetables, put them on display, and the judging is done privately. I was quite embarrassed two years ago, because I won virtually everything.” Of the 21 vegetables he entered, he had 11 first-place winners, six second-place winners, and three third-place winners.
Stratford is highly methodical when it comes to growing his big veg. “There’s not a minute of the day goes by where I’m not planning or tending to something,” he says. “Even in the winter months, I’m planning work on next year’s garden.” That often starts with green manure, a fertilization method that involves growing crops that are turned immediately back into the soil to improve its overall quality. “I also grow an awful lot of my vegetables a bit unconventionally,” he says, citing his famously enormous carrots and parsnips as a prime example. Stratford explains that, every March, he fills a 200-meter barrel with sand, then bores out five holes in the sand with a crowbar. He then fills the holes with compost, plants about three seeds per hole, and waits for the plants to grow to their second leaf. “Then you have to be cruel and choose your favorite of the three seeds [in each hole],” he says. “At that point, you’ve got five carrots in one barrel, and then you look after them.” Come August, you’ve got yourself a three-foot carrot and substantial bragging rights.
While Stratford’s show-stopping produce may be a bit of an anomaly, gardening is a fairly tranquil affair he’s happy to share with loved ones. “My middle daughter, Naomi—she’s lovely, she grows lovely things,” he says. “My youngest daughter, Corrina, is also into gardening.” He describes his partner, Elizabeth, as a “very keen flower gardener” as well as a master in the kitchen. The couple live in a tiny bungalow in the Cotswolds, an area of the U.K. surrounded by rolling hills and traditional honey-colored stone English villages. “Elizabeth and I are virtually self-sufficient,” he says. “What we don’t eat on a daily basis we make into pickles, chutneys, relishes, and jams.” (During our interview, Stratford was in the middle of a “quite experimental” endeavor to turn a six-foot tromboncino squash into jam. “Watch this space,” he told me, laughing.) What he and Elizabeth don’t eat or preserve, they give to a local care home for the elderly. “She’s very good with food, and I’m good at growing it and eating it,” he says, laughing. “She’s magical. A lot of the time she’s behind the scenes, but she’s so supportive. Without Elizabeth, I couldn’t do what is happening to me now.”
He’s referring, of course, to his Twitter presence, which made him a viral sensation overnight earlier this year. “In February 2019, I was talking to some friends on the internet in regards to growing big veg, and one of them mentioned Twitter,” he says. It’s a popular outlet for the giant veg community, an unquenchable group of vegetable extremists. “I’m not an expert when it comes to computers, so I asked my nephew Stephen if he could set up Twitter on my phone,” he says. “He did it in a millisecond, and I started posting one or two photographs a week showing what I’m doing in the garden and the kitchen.”
Then came May 17, 2020. “I’ll always remember that day,” he says. “It was a Saturday, and I got a bucket with some potatoes that were ready to harvest. Elizabeth and I went out into the garden, and I took them out of the greenhouse and emptied the bucket, and Elizabeth took some photographs.” He put the photos on Twitter with the caption “My first early rocket, very pleased.” (Note: rocket is a variety of potato.) Then came the pings.
“My phone started bleeping and buzzing and making all sorts of sounds, and I wondered what was going on,” he says. “So I phoned my nephew Stephen, and he told me, ‘Your spuds have gone viral.’” After asking his nephew what going viral meant, Gerald checked his phone—and realized that the photo had more than 70,000 likes, which gained him 9,000 followers in a matter of minutes. “Within 72 hours I’d gone up to 12,000 followers and nearly 80,000 likes, and it’s just ballooned from there.”
Today, Stratford has more than 205,000 followers on Twitter. I found his account earlier this year in the midst of a wolverine-like scrabble for cheerful news, and I’m far from the only one. Last month one follower told him, “I’m in the hospital currently and I really enjoy all the positivity you put in the world. Thank you! I needed a good smile today. Cheers!” Another user called him “a benevolent king.”
Stratford’s posts are simple, positive, and almost always accompanied by a cheeky smile. “People like what I do,” he tells me. “I don’t do politics or religion or anything like that. It’s just Gerald in his garden, and if people in these hard times like what I do, I like doing it. I’m a very positive person.” Stratford also has a bit of a mission: to share the mental health benefits of gardening, from which he’s personally benefited. “I’ve had sadness,” he tells me. “I’ve got a daughter of mine who’s seriously ill, and we’re helping her through a crisis. But when you’re in the garden—even if you’re doing nothing, just walking about—it’s better than being stuck inside a room. It helps your mental health.”
But while Stratford recognizes he has a platform, he’s not interested in being a celebrity. “I’m 72 years old,” he says, laughing. “All this has sort of hit me like a brick. I find it hard to take in at times, but if me carrying on helps people, I will.” As of now, he’s focused on two long-term goals. First, growing a monster pumpkin (the current record is more than 2,000 pounds). Second, writing a children’s book for the next generation of veg-heads. “I was lucky—my father taught me and my brothers gardening, and it’s lasted a lifetime,” he says. Don’t get it twisted: Stratford isn’t interested in using the book to boost his clout. “I don’t want it to be an ‘I Am Famous’ book like pop stars and sports personalities do,” he says. “I’d just like to do something to help people, especially children.”
I know it sounds trite, but writing about Gerald’s big veg made me emotional. Most viral personalities flame out almost immediately, either due to poor decision-making (Ken Bone syndrome) or by trying and failing to leverage their meme status into something greater (the woeful tale of Rebecca Black). In short, nothing is pure in this tweet-ravaged world. But as far as I can tell, Stratford hasn’t changed a thing about himself during his time in the spotlight. He doesn’t employ a social media strategy, his tweets are rife with typos, and he has no real interest in capitalizing on his viral fame. Stratford’s appeal lies in his gentle self-deprecation, as well as his passion for life’s little ambiguities—like the invisible alchemy that takes place when you plant a carrot and leave it for months until it’s time to harvest. “When you plant your seeds, eventually you see the little shoot coming through the ground,” Stratford tells me. “And you know eventually it’ll grow into into something big enough to put on your plate. Just to grow an ordinary vegetable is so rewarding.”
Stratford knows that his tweets may not inspire a sense of universal goodwill. More than anything, he just wants to make people smile—which is why he signs all of his tweets with a sunny “cheers!” He tells me: “In this old country of ours, if somebody buys you a drink, you touch each other’s glass and say ‘cheers.’ It’s a happy word for ‘thank you,’ and that’s why I always finish most messages with it.” Until we can cheers in person once more, that’s good enough for me.