Growing award winning vegetables
February 20, 2020
Americans have always been competitive. It doesn't really matter what the field is, from racing (the Daytona 500 is going on right now) or playing games or showing off our skills. We all want to be the best. Some of us have natural talents and abilities and some of us have to develop skills from knowledge and practice. Regardless of whether we have natural abilities or we have to strive to develop skills, it all requires hard work to be the best. Growing and showing vegetables is no different. The Laramie County Fair is one place we gardeners can show off our skills, which are the culmination of a season's worth of hard work, with a little luck and help from Mother Nature thrown in.
The Fair Book is the book of the rules of what can be shown and how to show it. And, believe it or not, it isn't just for the kids. 4-H and FFA are a major part of the fair, but they have classes all to themselves. The rest of us have classes that are open to us as well. It doesn't cost anything to place an entry in the fair and it's a lot of fun to see how your items compare to your neighbors'. Although this article is primarily for vegetables (because that's what I know most about) there are classes for every interest: art, photography, floral arrangements, woodwork, quilting, sewing and a whole lot more. Everybody should be able to find an area where they can compete. The Fair Book will be published on-line in about a month or you can stop by the Fair Office at the Archer Complex to pick up a hard copy. You can find it on-line at https://www.laramiecountyevents.com/fair/. Right now the 2019 Fair Book is up so you can get an idea of what's available. But there will be changes so make sure to get the 2020 Fair Book and read the rules. That is probably the most important aspect of showing anything. Know the rules. If you want to show, go ahead and register. Don't wait and just show up because you won't be able to get in. If your vegetables don't make it in time to show, don't worry about it. There isn't a penalty if you don't show up.
I don't have a lot of experience competing with fresh vegetables so for the purposes of this article I'm going to use information found in the book Blue Ribbon Vegetable Gardening: The Secrets to Growing the Biggest and Best Prize Winning Produce by Jodi Torpey. I had the great fortune to meet Ms. Torpey and hear her speak at a conference a couple of years ago. Even though I show canned goods and not fresh vegetables, she was absolutely fascinating. She gives tips not only on growing the vegetables, but also on how to display them for competition. The most critical advice she gives..."know the rules".
Now let's get started. By the way, Ms. Torpey's advice is useful selling vegetables, too, since they have to look good so that people want to buy. There are many varieties of vegetables and some will naturally look and show better than others. When you're looking for a variety to show pick one that will show well. Talking tomatoes, since we all seem to end up with them, some, like Brandywine, are fairly common and can be found in seed catalogs. Others you may have to do a little searching. I have found it best to start vegetables from seed since they are so easy. It's a lot cheaper, too, and I like that. You want to start your vegetables so that they're ripening right before the fair. Now decide how you want to compete. Do you want to grow big or good looking? Select the variety accordingly. You can't compete on the "big" side with a vegetable that will be small.
You will want to start several plants so you can mix and match to get the best show produce. If you rely on just one plant and it fails to produce, you're out of luck. Start with the soil (you already have your seed). Give the vegetable exactly what it wants. Most prefer a slightly acidic, or at least neutral, soil pH in a light well drained soil. That means that you can't just go outside and dig up some dirt, at least not in Laramie County. You'll have to make your soil. Mix your soil 50/50 with compost and soil, then mix in about 20 percent vermiculite. The vermiculite helps the soil drain. Start with a 3-4 inch pot and transplant into larger pots as needed. When the seeds come up you need to make sure they have at least 14 hours of very good light each day. Direct sunlight is best, but most of us have to work with grow lights. It helps to keep the seeds under a plastic dome until they germinate to keep the humidity up and help regulate the temperature. Once they've germinated you can take the dome off.
You only need water for your seedlings until they get their second set of leaves, then they need fertilizer about once a week. Make sure you use a fertilizer made specifically for the vegetable you want to show because they have different requirements. Don't rely on a commercial potting soil to have the proper nutrients for your vegetables. Even though several brands advertise having six months of fertilizer in their product, don't count on it. Even if they do, it may not be in the proper ratios for your vegetable. Keeping the plant warm with good light and fertilizer will put you well on your way to having an award winning vegetable.
Some plants will need a strong trellis system: cucumbers, indeterminate tomatoes, beans, etc. or at least a support system. The idea is to keep the vegetable off the ground and in the air so they can grow to their full potential and prevent discoloration. It also makes it easier to find the specific fruits for show. When you plant, make sure to give your show plants a little more space than what is required so they have plenty of room to grow. If you can grow the plants indoors you'll have a better chance of missing the hail that always seems to come right before harvest. You can build a small greenhouse (maybe 10 x 10 or smaller) very cheaply or even buy a small one just for your show plants. Be sure to mulch the plants to regulate the temperature on the roots and keep the soil damp but not wet.
Most veggies shown at our fair are shown as one specific fruit or as a group. For either method, pick the very best fruit to enter, those with no blemishes, no dings, and no discoloration. You also need to be aware of what day the judging will occur and do your best to plan to have the veggie at its peak ripeness on that day. You may have to pick veggies (such as tomatoes) right before they are ripe so they ripen on the correct day. Like I said, a little luck helps. If your showing a group (usually three or five), make sure they look as much alike as possible, same length, same thickness, same diameter, etc. and place them exactly how the Fair Book says. And don't forget the labeling. You have to use labels provided by the Fair. Fill them out, legibly, and place them in accordance with the instructions.
Following these simple and basic guidelines will take you a long way to having some of the best vegetables at the fair. I hope many of you will come out and compete at the fair this year. Even if it isn't vegetables, pick a class that suits you and enter. It's free, fun, and you may even meet some new friends. And who knows, you could even be named "Best of Class". If you have any questions, ask a Master Gardener, it's what we do. See you at the fair!