Private passions: James and his giant pumpkins

Born in Padstow, James Hocking began his career in banking for HSBC but soon became bored of the financial world so switched to the wine world after landing a job as beverage manager at Rick Stein’s The Seafood Restaurant in Cornwall. A bottle of 1992 Peter Michael Winery Les Pavots sparked his love of Californian wine, which led to him working his way up at California wine specialist The Vineyard Cellars to the role of director of wine. He sells gems from the Golden state to restaurants, hotels, other wine merchants and direct to consumers. He lives in Hampshire with his wife, daughter and two Siamese cats.

James Hocking and one of his giant pumpkins

How did you first get into growing giant veg?

My parents always had large vegetable plots, so I guess veg growing was in the blood. My wife and I got our first allotment plot a decade ago and one wet Saturday, visited our local village show. The standard was awful. The Hocking competitive nature came to the fore and I thought I could do better. So off we went!

How many pumpkins do you grow a year?

We mainly grow a cultivar called ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’. It’s an American native and this year we have about 30, ranging from big to stupidly big…

How long does it take for them to grow? 

We sow the seed around March and harvest in October in time for Hallowe’en. That’s about right for most growers as October to December sees massive demand for pumpkins for carving and pumpkin pie served at Thanksgiving dinners.

Who will be the lucky recipients in the wine trade of your pumpkins this year?

I took the first one over to Brighton in mid-October for Henry Butler and his smart wine shops. Some will also be going in to London and some staying at our hotels in Newbury as we’re planning some carving competitions.

Do you make soups and things with your pumpkins? 

Somewhat ironically, I’m not a big veg fan and avoid it when I can. Although my wife does make a mean loaf using pumpkin and onion in the dough mix.

What’s the largest one you’ve ever grown?

I tend not to weigh them all, but we’ve had a good number over 100kg that require three people to lift. When showing them at exhibitions they sit on a pallet and are moved around by a fork-lift truck.

 What else do you grow?

My main speciality is growing tomatoes, carrots, and potatoes, which I grow throughout the year and exhibit at all the major UK shows from early summer through to autumn. Pumpkins tend to be shown more at the end of the season running into autumn. I use a seed specialist Medwyn Williams for most of my exhibition cultivars and reselect my own when I can.

How does giant veg growing compare to grape growing?

Any form of fruit and vegetable growing is very similar. Most importantly we are working with what nature gives us in terms of climate. Care with the right amount of nutrients and water is vital (pumpkins require a huge amount of water), plus selecting your cultivar, preparing the ground correctly and preventing diseases.

One thing that is in our side is that, for the vineyard owner, late spring frost spells a death sentence for the fruit, but veg growers can and often do make a complete recovery.

Do you find gardening therapeutic? 

Absolutely! I can get completely lost in time working our allotments. Plus, all that digging and cultivating keeps you fit…

Have you ever won any competitions for your efforts?

I’ve been showing competitively for six years and each year sees improvement. In 2017, I entered eight shows and won 26 firsts, five ‘Best in Show’ and seven trophies plus a Banksian medal from the Royal Horticultural Society for most points gained in a show.

These vary from my local village event to the New Forest Show in Hampshire and the Royal Horticultural Society Malvern Show, which is considered by many as the greatest fruit and vegetable competition in the UK.

What has been your best vegetable and wine match so far?

In California circa 2009 we stayed at the Auberge du Soleil in Napa Valley and had a scallop and pancetta dish, the base being a pea puree with a hint of garlic. The matching wine was a DRC Grands Echezeaux 1990. I remember the dish and the combination like it was yesterday. Perfection…

Are you experimenting with growing anything new at the moment?

Long beetroot has been new for me this year, grown in a sand-based compost in ex-fruit juice drums around a metre deep. I have just sourced some incredibly rare ‘Dubois’ seed from a private grower in Scotland and will be increasing the numbers planted in 2018.

And finally… If you were a vegetable what would you be and why?

I’d be a ‘New Red Intermediate’ carrot – the longest of all root vegetables. A lovely vibrant orange colour, difficult to grow and can be quite stubborn to get going on occasion. However, it commands a prime spot on the show bench and craves being the centre of attention. Among the more egotistic of the vegetable world…

If you know a member of the wine trade with a quirky private passion, hobby or skill then let us know and they could appear in this slot. Please email: lucy.shaw@thedrinksbusiness.com with your suggestions.

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