Grow big or go home: Ellen Stewart snaps the UK’s biggest vegetables

After nestling her way into the big veg community, the photographer learnt that the display of horticultural flair is much more than just a simple pastime.

12 March 2024

As far as muses go, for some photographers it might be a unique face, for others a particularly beautiful piece of architecture. For Ellen Stewart, it’s always been vegetables – their unusual shapes, and the “strangeness” they can add when positioned in an otherwise run-of-the-mill photograph.

After recognising how much vegetables cropped up (ahem...) in her work, Ellen decided to indulge her fascination further, and this is how she stumbled across the UK’s giant vegetable growing community. Originally a low-stakes 1980s pub competition, the display of horticultural flair has now flourished into an all year round sport, judged at county fairs across the country, with certain growers even being propelled to celebrity status. While Sowing the Sod captures the excitement of the events and fairs, it also delves into the weeks leading up to them (aptly dubbed ‘squeaky bum time’ by growers) exposing “the delicate dance between anticipation and the vulnerability of world record vegetables to uncontrollable external elements”, says Ellen.

From the get-go, Ellen “instinctively” knew the project would be best executed in black and white. This aesthetic choice differs drastically from that of Jack Kenyon’s series following two growers in the lead-up to the big veg competitions, which we covered last year. For Titans of Giant Vegetables, Jack opted for high-exposure, high-saturation colour photography which aligned well with his close focus on the enigmatic personalities behind the vegetables. While Ellen does focus on the growers, her camera is much more drawn to the vegetables: a gigantic squash being hauled away on a forklift, large garlic, their roots fluffy with mud, or a uniform line of marrows, freshly picked. For Ellen, “the black and white really isolates the shape and form of the vegetables”, and also helps to enhance a key quality the photographer was trying to visually translate: the surreal, otherworldly existence of such large veg.

GalleryEllen Stewart: Sowing the Sod (Copyright © Ellen Stewart, 2024)

To complete the project, Ellen spent time with the growers, meeting them at their homes and on their allotments, working out the vegetables and settings that were worth getting a shot of. These scenarios were much easier to control compared to the quick, in-the-moment nature of shooting at the fairs. One encounter that stayed with Ellen is her time spent at Gerald Stratford’s house, a grower who’s gained a hefty online following after his charming social media documentation of his larger-than-life vegetables blew up over the Covid pandemic.

One image taken in Gerald’s greenhouse shows a large cucumber resting in a custom hammock, made necessary after Gerald’s cat pulled the cucumber off its stem; Gerald handcrafted a new bed for the cucumber, paying close attention to ensure there was no further breakage. “From one perspective I love the aspect of patience and nurturing it involves, making sure the cucumber is safe,” says Ellen. “But I also love how visually it shows an obscured still life that could be set up, taking on an almost phallic connotation with its own uncontrollable shape.” For Ellen, this particular shot proves how ordinary objects can become “surreal, yet everyday sculptures”, things recognisable in form, colour and texture, but entirely incomprehensible in scale.

If Ellen learnt anything from the Sowing the Sod, it’s that giant vegetable growing is far from a simple ‘pastime’. As seen in Gerald’s case, it takes a superlative level of patience and caring touch, but it also requires immense skill; or, as Ellen puts it, the ability to master the interplay between “control and chaos”. It also demonstrates the wondrous potential of the natural world, as well as showing the joy that can be found in even the most niche of communities and friendly competition. I mean, why ever would you grow a humongous squash, if there wasn't another to beat?

GalleryEllen Stewart: Sowing the Sod (Copyright © Ellen Stewart, 2024)

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Ellen Stewart: Sowing the Sod (Copyright © Ellen Stewart, 2024)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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