How to win at shows

J.J. Strong
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Sure, you're gardening for pleasure. Once the veggies are pulled and the flowers cut, there's more fun to had at the judging table.

While in England earlier this month, I visited the Flower and Vegetable Show of the Kirby le Soken Gardening Club, held in the parish hall in the small village of Kirby le Soken, to compare it with our local shows.

Why does anybody enter a contest, you may ask?

Obviously, to win.

Some people grow especially for a show, while most just grow their plants and spontaneously decide to enter.

Vegetable exhibits can be seen on the table behind these cactus dahlias at the Kirby le Soken Gardening Club's Flower and Vegetable Show in England recently. - Photo by J.J. Strong/Special to The Telegram

While in England earlier this month, I visited the Flower and Vegetable Show of the Kirby le Soken Gardening Club, held in the parish hall in the small village of Kirby le Soken, to compare it with our local shows.

Why does anybody enter a contest, you may ask?

Obviously, to win.

Some people grow especially for a show, while most just grow their plants and spontaneously decide to enter.

Do not be shy - you have to start some time. It is interesting, and you can learn a lot about growing and exhibiting as most experienced exhibitors are willing to assist a newcomer. First-time exhibitors will also be eligible for the New Exhibitors Award, so be of stout heart and exhibit for the first time. The more exhibits, the better the show.

As a long-time gardener, participant, exhibitor, winner and judge, let me help you to win.

Planning

It is important to have a schedule. Winning starts in the garden, so you have to look around and decide what you will enter as the show date approaches. In general, you should cut or harvest a few more than required, in case of damage. Carefully select your specimens for uniformity in size, shape, colour; lack of flaws, diseases, damage - torn or broken folliage or fruit. Cut or lift carefully.

Some shows are registered on the morning of the show and then judged, so an early start is necessary. However, local shows in this province tend to have registration on the preceding day, i.e Friday afternoon or evening, but judging takes place the next day. Then the show is open to the general public.

This time difference is important to note, as you have to allow for changes in the state of your exhibits overnight. A typical change might be tight blooms opening further, changing the diameter of the blooms. Also, well-open blooms may start to fade. Buds may open and you end up with an extra bloom and now are NAS - not as scheduled.

With vegetables, brassicas may tend to wilt.

If you are not permitted to place the exhibit on the judging table yourself, hope that the show has responsible handlers to move your exhibit.

Exhibiting

The basic trick to winning, as in all competitive sports, is knowing how to influence the judge - not by cheating, but by using all your skills in the harvesting, preparation and presentation to attract his or her attention to your exhibit. You want to make it stand out above all others and catch their attention.

Flower show exhibits range through various classes of annuals, perennials, roses, African violets, cut woody plants, house or potted plants, and outdoor planters. You can also try your hand at table arrangements: modern style, still life, "petals and poetry" and others. They are listed in the schedule.

It should go without saying that you must use fresh flowers. I mention this because, at one show, I saw artificial flowers being used.

It takes experience to know how long before the show specific flowers should be cut so that they are the correct size for judging. Cut the flowers with a sharp knife - leaving as long a stem as possible - either early in the morning or late afternoon, and immediately place in water to reduce wilting. Flowers are heavy drinkers, so see that they always have water.

Vegetable and fruit shows also have classes that run the gamut of presentation.

Cleaning and presentation

Carrots and parsnips: handle with care so as to not damage the roots. Cleaning should be as you would your heirloom china, gently washing with a soft sponge to remove the soil, and not with a brush that would scratch the skins.

Look for a matching set; same length, size, clean skins, unmarked, undamaged and with a bright, fresh colour. Stage side by side, not on top of each other.

Beet: wash carefully. New exhibitors and visitors are often amazed to see a beet that's been cut. This is the only way to reveal to the judge that the quality, colour and health of the flesh is consistent throughout the beet.

Typical methods used by judges are a small wedge from the side or a small slice from the side, while others prefer a slanting cut right through the beet.

Peas: should be handled by the stems. They should be uniform in size and, depending on numbers, staged by being laid out parallel, or fanned like a sunrise. Note: the judge may select one or two pods and hold up to the light to determine if the pods are full, or if one is missing a pea, so you should check your pods.

Runner beans should be laid parallel, but the judge may select one pod and snap it in two to determine freshness and tenderness.

Onions: trim roots and foliage and any loose skins. Do not strip the skins down to the inner white layers. Wash in tepid water containing a tiny drop of washing up fluid and use a soft sponge.

Dry with a soft cloth and apply a little talcum powder to dry the onion and help to produce an even colour.

Some exhibitors apply a little Vaseline Intensive Care around the necks to prevent them cracking, and tie the necks with raffia. Use care in handling and never let the onions touch each other. Never lift by the neck.

Cherry tomatoes: you'll requires one cluster of six or more fruit on a stem. This is more difficult to achieve than six cherry tomatoes picked from several stems.

These are just a few tips.

Do not be intimidated. Enter the shows and learn. Someone has to win and someone lose.

I repeat what I have heard and written many times: do not go the show and say, "I have better exhibits than that in my garden."

If that's the case, you should have entered!

Good luck.

J.J. Strong is The Telegram's gardening columnist

Geographic location: England, Peas

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