In 2019, Gerald Stratford made a Twitter account to connect with other gardeners. One afternoon in 2020, he had his partner, Elizabeth, snap a few iPhone photos of Stratford proudly holding a massive bucket of potatoes he’d recently harvested from his plot in Oxfordshire, U.K. “Nothing special,” he thought, but hoped his 94 followers would enjoy the images.
Suddenly, the phone started buzzing uncontrollably. “I thought something was wrong [but] didn't know at the time how to mute it,” Stratford recalled. He hid his phone and eventually called Elizabeth’s son, Steven, to help him out. They soon discovered there was no problem with his phone: “You've gone viral with your sprouts, Gerald!” Steven explained.
While Stratford had no idea what “viral” meant at the time, he soon learned that people all over the world had discovered him and his “big veg,” as he likes to call the large produce he grows in his yard. “Within 48 hours, I'd gone from 94 followers up to 9,000. I had 78,000 likes. It's been a juggernaut ride since,” he explained.
Today, Stratford and his big veg have over 312,000 followers on Twitter (and over 79,000 on Instagram). Clad most often in cheery, colorful outfits, Stratford continues to charm his audience by sharing images of himself holding up his enormous vegetables, fruit, herbs, and sprouts, each with a detailed description of the plant and, often, his go-to sign off “Cheers.”
A firm believer that anyone can garden with the right tools, Stratford published his first book Big Veg, in the U.K. last year; it comes out in the U.S. on April 26. The book is a user-friendly wealth of information about growing produce in any space, at any time of year. From when to sow certain seeds in a large plot to how to use a milk carton to grow sprouts on a balcony, Stratford desires nothing more than to spread the good word of gardening.
I spoke with Stratford over Zoom on a gloomy February morning, but his tie-dyed sweatshirt and chipper attitude immediately brightened the mood. We chatted about the importance of composting, going viral on Twitter, and, of course, what to do with big veg.
A day in the garden please wear clothes you feel good in if you do you work much better cheers pic.twitter.com/FCV2sgVdHI— gerald stratford (@geraldstratfor3) March 23, 2022
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
REBECCA FIRKSER: Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
GERALD STRATFORD: I'm 73. I've been gardening all my life. My first packet of seed was given to me from my father when I was about five. And I copied what he showed me and grew. The packet of seed was radish. I can remember pulling the first small radish, cleaning it, taking it indoors, and mother put it under the tap and toweled it, and gave me it with a pinch of salt. I've been eating vegetables and growing them ever since.
RF: Salt on radishes is very important. Where did you grow up?
GS: I grew up in Oxfordshire. I'm still based in Oxfordshire, but about 25 miles from where I was born. So I've always stayed in and around Oxfordshire. We live in a small bungalow now on the approach to a set of hills called the Cotswolds.
RF: Your book, Big Veg, comes out this spring. Can you tell me a bit about it?
GS: It's not an expert's book. There's not a single Latin word in it. I just want people to garden. If somebody picks my book up and wants to have a go, whether it's planting something in a bucket or in their garden, that's good enough. I haven't used any poetic license. It's exactly how I garden. If somebody sees something in the book, that's what I'm doing every year in my garden.
Basically, most of my life I've been a worker, and my hobby was fishing. I always dreamt of writing a fishing book but it never happened. And then when the social media thing started to happen with me, the chance of having a book with what's made me famous was going to happen. It was real. And so [my partner] Elizabeth and myself and a gentleman who is a journalist helped me put it together. And we burnt the midnight oil for a few months last winter, and then in September it went live [in the U.K.]. And it's a dream come true.
RF: We are speaking in February. And in your book you said that February is a very busy month, preparing for the spring. So I wonder, what are you working on in the garden right now?
GS: Well, every month for me is busy. I'm that sort of chap, I like to keep myself busy. And if I could pick a quiet time, it would be between the end of October and just before Christmas. But I'm still doing things. That's a period when I do lots of maintenance. Just before Christmas I start sowing in my heated greenhouse, my big onions. And then it's a general progression into January, February, March, planting things like chilies, sweet peppers, celery, more onions, cabbage, parsnips. And it's just your general progression. It's an ongoing thing every day. And I must say, I do things 200 percent. I'm that sort of person.
RF: You can see that in all of your work. There's so much passion there. I'm curious: I live in an apartment in New York City and I want to do some gardening. Do you have any tips for apartment dwellers?
GS: Right. On your balcony, you could grow all sorts of things. [Put] one potato in a one gallon bucket, with a little bit of luck and some TLC, and you could get enough potatoes for two of you. Nice fresh potatoes for two or three meals. As simple as that.
If you have a milk cart with a handle, just cut the handle, cut a little bit out the front, drill a hole in the bottom to let the water out, hang it on your patio, put some compost in, and you'll be able to grow all sorts of crops in that to give you green shoots. Any vegetable is a salad if you pick it at the correct time. Something like a beetroot, which is a big round thing, but if you get the leaves when they're nice and small, they are delicious.
[Editor's note: there are tutorials for both of these projects in Big Veg.]
Just sorting some seeds for the week i’m praying for nice weather cheers pic.twitter.com/CJmwcyoGFh— gerald stratford (@geraldstratfor3) February 7, 2022
RF: And then you're just saving on food waste as well, which is always something we're looking out for.
GS: We compost most things. I think the only food [that gets thrown away are] bones, and cooked food, or processed [food] because that is very hard to break down. But I'm working on a hot bin. Something which will actually rot everything.
It is trying to save the planet. If every person had one of those bins, and you could chuck everything in it, and then every six weeks you take something out the bottom to spread on your garden rather than buy a bag of compost.
RF: What is your favorite big veg?
GS: I love potatoes. It's a staple food, and you can eat it in many forms, and it's not hard to grow. But I like growing all veg.
RF: Of course. I'm sure you do a decent amount of cooking and baking with your veg. What are you looking forward to making with your veg this spring?
GS: On our midday break, we always have some cheese and crackers with a little bit of salad. That sort of thing, it's lovely. And in the summer months, when my greenhouse is full, overflowing with tomatoes, there's nothing better than just sliced tomatoes on toast and a little bit of salt and pepper. That's a lovely tasty meal.
RF That is the best food in the world. I have to say, I'm with you on that.
GS: I grow one called Gigantomo. And it's quite an ugly tomato. It's all narrow, but when you slice it, the taste is beautiful. It really has a nice taste. We have a lot of that in the summer. And any surplus food, we do all sorts of things with it. We freeze it, we pickle it and can it. Trying to reciprocate what my parents [did when I was young].
RF: Did your parents teach you how to preserve and pickle?
GS: Well, they didn't teach me as such, but I was there in the kitchen with mom, and you look…and you remember, don't you? The bit of trial and error, when you first have a go, you eventually become like them.
And in 2020, we bought a [dehydrator], and we started drying our own tomatoes, sweet peppers, chiles, and strawberries. The first time Elizabeth gave me a piece of this dry tomato, it looked a bit sort of brown and crisp. And I put it in my mouth, and it was a little bit chewy. And then when your saliva starts to break it down, it really hits you behind the ear. We love those. We make our own sun-dried tomatoes. We dry them, put them in a little jar with olive oil, and they are delicious. Especially on a nice pizza.
Its raining today so to make us feel better ‘l post a video from better climes cheers pic.twitter.com/jUdzV6ippv— gerald stratford (@geraldstratfor3) February 4, 2022
RF: Can you tell me about what the transition was like from sharing all of your work on social media to working on a book—what was that journey like?
GS: The journey is still going ahead. I haven't reached the destination. I think when you go somewhere, the journey most of the time is better than the destination. And I treat my life the same.
RF: I think people are so enamored by your originality and your genuineness. The internet can be a weird place.
GS:I love my sport and I've got political ideas and things, but that's separate. That's another world. Social media is me in the garden.
RF: Is there anything else that you'd like to share with our readers, with home gardeners and home cooks?
GS: I just want to share my gardening with the world. And if I can make somebody happier by looking at my vegetables and asking a question for me to answer [regarding] growing something, I'm happy.
On Black & Highly Flavored, co-hosts Derek Kirk and Tamara Celeste shine a light on the need-to-know movers and shakers of our food & beverage industry.Listen Now