An Interview With Competitive Gardener Medwyn Williams, King Of The Vegetable Realm
10:40 AM EDT on September 24, 2020
Medwyn Williams is one of the world's foremost vegetable growers. The first time you see him pull a yard-long parsnip out of the soil, or bundle several spotless and titanic leeks, you understand that the 78-year-old Welshman has mastered a skill humans have been at for millennia. At competition, the veggies are judged for quality and uniformity—and size doesn't hurt either, so long as those criteria are met. Williams was a little disappointed that the COVID-19 pandemic interfered with his plan to showcase his regal onions this year at the Chelsea Flower Show, where he has won 12 consecutive Gold Medals, but he was happy to show off one such onion over video as he spoke to me about the world of competitive vegetable shows. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Giri Nathan: You're based in Wales.
Medwyn Williams: Yeah, we're based on North Wales, on a small island called Anglesey. And I happen to live in the longest village name supposedly in the world, and it's called Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.
So everybody in the world seems to know that go-go-goch. But it's quite difficult to say the other ones. It's a name typed up by an old tailor, back in the 1600s, I believe, just to confuse the English tourists. [Ed. note: Some 16 syllables were tacked onto the name in the 19th century.] I think he did a damn good job of it.
GN: I definitely feel confused. If I remember right, are there four letters 'L' consecutively in this name, or is that a different Welsh village?
MW: [slowly sounding out Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch] Yeah there is, actually. The translation of it is … I can't remember the translation now. I was born Welsh, couldn't speak English till I was about 10. It was completely foreign to me at the time. The language at home was all Welsh. Quite proud of my Welshness.
GN: To go back to your childhood, what were the first vegetables that you grew?
MW: My father was just a very humble farmworker. Times were hard, and money was scarce. And he turned the whole of the back garden over to vegetables. In those days, the only holidays that the farmworker could get, the first holiday of the year, would be a bank holiday, which would be on Easter. So they were working till 12 o'clock on Saturday afternoon. It was dark in evenings, so they couldn't do anything in the garden. So if it was raining on a Friday, he'd be in a hell of a bad temper, he wouldn't be able to get out. And he'd be worse if it was raining on Saturday. But it was on a Good Friday, when I was 9 years old, he forked over a square meter plot in the garden, and he opened a few rows in it. And he gave me three packets of seed: radish, mustard, and cress.
For a humble farmworker he was wise, because these were quick to germinate, and quick to harvest. So he caught a child's imagination. Within a matter of five days or so, these green shoots kept popping out of the ground. And within five weeks, I invited my friend Gareth over and I harvested the radish, cress, and the mustard and I did a mustard sandwich with lashings of salad cream on it. And it went down well. So from that point on, I was hooked on gardening together with me dad. He used to compete at the local flower shows. My sister and I used to fight over who would go with him in the morning, and my sister was a very heavy sleeper. I never used to wake her up [laughs].
So that's how it all started. Very humble beginnings in a very, very old cottage—1600s or even earlier than that. There was no electricity, no running water, no toilets. Just a bucket at the bottom of the garden. My father used to empty that into the garden. Sometimes in the summer, he gives a lovely, beautiful butterhead lettuce to an old lady. She used to say to us, "Oh, that was the most beautiful lettuce I ever had." But if she knew what was underneath it, she probably wouldn't have eaten it. But it was all organic matter, and no pesticides or nothing, you know?
GN: And what veggies are you currently growing at the moment?
MW: Well, we grow quite a lot of stuff when we exhibit at Chelsea and Malvern [the Malvern Autumn Show]. But sadly, of course, there's been none of that this year—no shows at all to put anything in. Chelsea is the third week in May, so I had an awful lot of vegetables going for it. We generally grow around 40-plus kinds of vegetables. Bear in mind that we grow just a few of some things, just to make a dish. The dish is a technical name for the vegetables held together in a basket or on a plate.
Actually today would have been the day we would have been down to Malvern. There's a big autumn show there. But it's not to be, this time, so I'm a bit lost. My routine has gone to pot.
GN: What are your personal favorite veggies to grow?
MW: Oh, well, I do like my onions. There's a saying, a good gardener "knows his onions." And I've got an onion here, actually. [Raises incredibly large onion to camera] That's about 21, 22 inches. About five, six pounds in weight. Perfectly edible.
GN: It's beautiful.
MW: Yeah, it is. There's something about growing them. It's quite a challenge, when you think, that the seed is so minute. Yet such a huge thing like that grows in a matter of six, seven months from that seed. The long carrots as well, I like growing. I like growing all the veg—and more importantly, I like eating them as well. I love the veggies. Some I'm less partial to. Celery I'm not too keen on. But I do like it. But God has been kind to us, you see. When he developed celery he made sure there was a groove in the back of it to put salad cream into it.
GN: In the U.S. we like peanut butter in our celery.
MW: Bloody hell. Yeah, I'm not a lover of peanut butter, I never have been.
GN: So what are the most challenging veggies for you to grow?
MW: The leek, of course, is the emblem of Wales. We grow quite a lot of leeks. Quite challenging. They're all challenging, really, when you try to grow them to perfection. That's the challenge: to have them on the display, on the day, as perfect as you could possibly get them. And that's a specific challenge, because when you sow crops of two different kinds, they're both going to cross the finishing line together, and they'll both be parceled off at different dates. That's the biggest challenge, to get them all [in sync]. Chelsea was the third week in May, which was a challenge in itself, because that's the time people start really planting their vegetables here. But I had a dream, like Martin Luther King had a dream. My dream was of winning the gold medal of Chelsea, with August-, September-quality vegetables ready in May. And I achieved that. We've had a gold medal every time we've tried. Twelve consecutive golds now. Two in America—best in shows at Cincinnati, Ohio. We've never had less than a gold at any show we've competed at. We try and keep up the standards because there's only one way to go now. If it starts slipping. It's downhill.
GN: When you're growing the veggies at this size, is it difficult to maintain the flavor?
MW: Not really. The flavor is good. People will say this all the time, you know, when they go around the flower shows, and they look larger-than-your-normal-supermarket vegetables. And they say, they're not edible. But the truth is different. Because we give them a lot of TLC, right? They got a lot of TLC to grow to perfection, and we harvest them at the peak perfection, when they are ready to eat. They haven't gone over the top. There are fun competitions where you grow the heaviest, largest or the longest. There's a lot of that going on as well, but they're barely edible, a lot of them, they're just a fun thing. But it's a good way of getting people involved in gardening.
So are you writing this in a magazine or what?
GN: Yes. I was hoping to publish it on our online sports magazine. And on that note, because we are very interested in sports, we're also interested in the competitive aspect of your field. What are you being judged for at, say, the Chelsea show?
MW: Well the Chelsea show is my Olympics, really. It's the highest you can go in the horticultural world. The merits are the same. It keeps you fit, for a start. I'm now 78, I still go gardening every day. It's just not a sprint. It's a marathon more or less all the time, and you've constantly got to keep your eyes open for what's happening with the vegetables, when you've got 40 different kinds, to look after them all. When you're growing out of season, like I was for Chelsea, nature has an uncanny way of kicking you back and telling you, Hang on a minute, you're going too fast here. You check yourself and you think, Well what am I doing wrong here? Because we use artificial lights and heat to get them ready on time.
I suppose there are similarities to sports. The need to win, I've got that winning in me. There's no use coming second, is it? [Name unclear] said once: "It's not important, winning, but by Christ it beats coming second." [Ed. note: When I followed up to clarify the speaker of this quote, Williams offered an even better one, from driver Ayrton Senna: "'I am not designed to come second or third. I am designed to win.'"]
The range of medals you compete for is a gold, then silver gilt, then silver, then bronze. Then you get a letter after that, saying, "Don't come here again." [laughs] We've been lucky, we've gotten a gold every time. They're judged by more than one person, they're judged by a team of five or six people, who judge a few exhibits, and they've got merits in different fields. But I tend to agree with them, most of them. I've been a judge myself.
GN: How do you prepare for a competition?
MW: For instance, I would have been at Malvern, just about arriving there now. So the work would have started, three, four days ago. Pulling and washing. You've got to decide what you're pulling first and when you're pulling at the last minute. Some vegetables will not last long, when you consider that they have to be on a display stand in Chelsea from a Friday to the following Saturday, which is eight days. The main thing is that they've got to stay fresh from the Friday until the Monday morning, when they're judged. After that, of course, it will slowly go downhill, but there's quite a lot of them. The first things we pull would be potatoes, which are tougher, then beets.
There's quite a lot of washing to do. For a basket of potatoes, we need about 40 nicely shaped potatoes, nice smooth skin. And we do six varieties, so we're talking, 240 have to be washed, and each one is individually wrapped in clean paper, and then boxed up. Then starting all the others. Some things come with experience—you need to know how things travel. Carrots will travel very well when when they're wet. We line the box with polythene, then we put the carrots in, and then we cover them with layers of damp paper, and then we cover it with polythene again. The parsnips will travel dry better. If you travel them wet, they tend to stain and go brown. These judges, you know, they're always looking for imperfections, they're always looking for faults. I always say, a good judge will always look for the quality on your vegetables first, then he'll see the faults in so doing. But a bad judge will first go, Now then, what can you see wrong with this? But we try not to put anything that's faulty on it.
My wife [Gwenda] is a very stern, uh—she's very difficult to work with, I can tell you, she's a perfectionist. I have a saying in my seed catalog, on the front here: "I strive for perfection but settle for excellence."
GN: That's very good.
MW: I thought it was very apt for us. We're a very, very small business. Just me and the wife. My son was in the army. He was in the Welsh Guards for 25 years, and he had some bad times. You know, he was in Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, Bosnia. He'd been around, so when he finished, he came in the office one day and he said to me, I'd like to join you in the business. So I said, Well, I can't pay you bloody much, but you're welcome to join. And he's been with me ever since, and then my grandson. We are three generations of family working, that's all there is of us, really.
GN: If I understand correctly, before a competition you have a recurring nightmare.
MW: Oh yeah, I did. You see, when we do these displays—you've seen the pictures, I presume—we have cones of tomatoes. And every tomato is pushed onto a cocktail stick on a dry conical base. In fact, we go through about 2,000 cocktail sticks, when we're doing the display, to support them. We do a triangle of cauliflowers. We start with four, three, two, one at the top. And my nightmare is: Just before judging, one of those top cauliflowers falls done down, hits the [tomato] cone, hits another cone, and the whole bloody display is gone to ruin.
Well, in fact, it did happen at Chelsea in 2019. I had a phone call on the morning just before judging. One of the sponsors have gone into the marquee and they discovered the hole at the top with no cauliflower in it. But luckily it had dropped straight down onto the shelf, and didn't damage anything. So my son rushed out to the hotel. This was about seven in the morning, and was able to get a stepladder— because he can't get at it, because it's full of vegetables all around—but he was able to get a stepladder and get over the top and push this cauliflower back. About four-inch long nails, and you push the cauliflower on. Really you only have one chance at it, because the nail is about a quarter of an inch diameter. So if you take it off, and you push it on again, the stalk will split and loosen up. But yeah, that's always been a bloody nightmare for the worried. But luckily, perhaps, the nightmare's gone now, because it did happen, without the foreseen damage.
GN: Is the community quite competitive? Or are growers generally quite supportive of one another?
MW: No, no, they're very supportive, to be honest. By the time you get to that level, the Chelsea level, everybody's very supportive of each other. They understand the competitiveness, they've been there. They've had their failures. They're now at the top level, and they understand what it is to win. There's no cheating or anything like that going on. And we help each other. People sometimes don't understand, but Chelsea is really a piece of ground on the gardens of the Royal Hospital. And it's a marquee setup there, so if you've forgotten something, you're right up in the muck. I once didn't have enough canes. I wanted some 2-foot canes, so I sent a lad around and very quickly we got enough canes. Moss is another thing—sometimes you've got to guess how much you need. And the other frightening thing is if you went there, and you didn't have enough vegetables to finish a display. But that never happened. We always made sure we have more than we need. Because if there are any leftover we can we can sell them at the end. We sell what we can to recover our costs. And then what we can't sell, we give it away. And it's amazing how good the quality is when you've grown something good. But the sporting element is is quite keen. Everybody's vying for the gold medal, of course, because that's what everybody wants.
MW: A cousin's husband said to me, If you ever come to America, you've got to do three things: You've got to go for a ride in a Chevrolet, you've got to eat apple pie, and you've got to see a baseball match. And I've done all that.
GN: That's great. You've seen everything we have to offer.
MW: I went to see the Boston Red Sox. I couldn't believe the size of a beer. It wasn't a pint. You put it to your mouth and you couldn't see anything else. It was all covered, your face. It must have been nearly a quart.
GN: Yeah, everything is scaled up in volume, in terms of anything you can eat or drink. I think your vegetables would be very popular here, in that sense.
MW: The food is ridiculous. The size of the steaks and stuff. I mean, when I was there last, it was over 20 years now, but I used to love the steaks. But yeah, too much sometimes.
GN: As an expert grower, what are some common mistakes that you see amateur growers making?
MW: I see quite a lot of amateur growers try to go in too deep, too quick. I always tell people, they ask me, what should I grow? I say grow what you like. There's no use growing parsnips if you don't like grow parsnips. What's the point? Grow what you like to eat, that's the main thing, and from starting to grow what you like to eat, you might become competitive then. You might like to try and grow. There might be a Cock o' the North at your local show, who's been winning all the time—why not try and make an aim to beat him? Go quietly, don't do too much, just persevere. And I do help with problems. I write in a gardening magazine in this country, weekly. And I must have been doing something right, because I've been writing now for over 35 years. I give tips to people who want to grow for exhibition.
There is a competitive element in it, very much so. And a little bit of jealousy as well, at the lower end, where they reckon they've got secrets, and they try and keep these secrets passionately to themselves. But in reality, there aren't any secrets. If you look after your plants properly, that's the main thing. Do what needs to be done today. Not tomorrow. If it needs to be done today, you do it today. Keep on top of the job.
GN: Do you have any specific vegetables that you've grown that you were especially fond of? Or that you thought really perfected the the form?
MW: The leek has always been one of my favorites as well. We've developed a new leek, as well, that's available this year for the first time. It's a blanch leek. We've called it Tryfan, after one of the mountains in Wales. But when you come out to our little nursery, the first thing that you see, right on the horizon, is Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales. And left of that is Tryfan. So we named the leek after Tryfan because it's big and imposing.
That's got all the merits of a good leek. The barrel, which is the white bit, should nice and straight, parallel, no bulbous bottom. The foliage should be nice and clean, no pest damage or disease. And it should measure around eight, nine inches around. And 18 inches of white on the barrel.
The northeast of England is a very keen leek-growing area, they have a leek they call the pot leek, in which the white bit is no more the six inches, but it can be quite big around, about 15 inches around. That's the historical growing area there because it's a pit area with digging for coal. The coal miners have always made good growers. Good gardeners always from the mines, because they've been under ground all day. And the first thing they want is to get some fresh air, and they love the gardening, and they're good at it as well.
GN: What is your preparation of the leek?
MW: Well, it's the harvesting of it. Because we plant them on the surface, you see. Traditionally you dig a hole for a leek, put the leek in, and then the soil covers it up. That's how you get the blanch, the white bit, otherwise the whole thing would be green. So what we do is we plant from the surface, and we use plastic collars. We increase the length of the collar from 9 to 12 to 15 to 18 inches, our longest collar. So we get this white. The leek pulls, naturally looking for the daylight. And that's how we get this length on it. But it's got to be straight to do that, initially.
GN: To grow vegetables out of their ideal season, you'll have to come up with ways to almost deceive the vegetable and make them feel that they're growing under different conditions.
MW: Yeah, yeah. You're a bit of a con artist. [laughs]
GN: What are your favorite methods of that?
MW: It's using the lights to your advantage. We grew carrots last year, which were really, really good. They were magnificent, but we couldn't show them anywhere. But we grew them in a grow box, which is a big walk-in plastic box, white inside, black outside. Plenty of ventilations, lots of lights. We cheat the carrots. They think it's early April, when we actually sow the seed at the end of November. So what I do, I check the daylight length. Whatever the daylight length is in the middle of April, that's what I put the lights on. They're on the timer. If it's 12 hours at that point, I get 12 hours. Later on, when we go into May, it will be sort of January for me. December, January, so we increase the light spectrum, the length of the daylight. They get some lights, according to what they would in nature. And that's how produce them. It's not a cheap job, but I am sponsored by a company which helps cover the cost.
It's like everything in life. If you get a gold medal, it's a lot easier for you to get a sponsor than if you get a bronze.
GN: That's right.
MW: And it must be the same in sport.
GN: It is definitely the same. The rich get richer.
MW: Yeah, exactly.
GN: What are the emotions that you experience as you're giving a prize veggie all your TLC over a long period of time?
MW: It's hard to get to sleep sometimes. That's the job. You're thinking all the time. You know, What the hell? Why didn't I do that today? What should I have done today? And then you go, Christ, I've forgotten to sow something. So I get out of bed, dash downstairs, and I go on the computer and look and go, Oh, no, it's next week, thank god for that. Or I missed it by two weeks, perhaps. A week doesn't matter here or there, really. But two weeks or three weeks, you've forgotten to sow something, that's a heck of a difference. You won't get the size you want. It won't look as good. And it'll be an immature vegetable. So yeah, it's quite an emotional ride, very often. Especially the couple of weeks before the show, when you're looking at your vegetables, and you think, Oooh, that's got to do a bit of growing. And you give him a little bit extra nitrogen feed, perhaps, to push him along. It's quite an emotional ride. And luckily, I've got a good wife who's been with me all the time. We've been married 55 years. And she knows what it's all about.