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Blue Ribbon Vegetable Gardening by Jodi Torpey

Blue Ribbon Gardening by Jodi Torpey

Blue Ribbon Gardening by Jodi Torpey

What excites you in the vegetable garden? For some gardeners it is competition and the desire to grow the biggest, most beautiful beet or squash or cabbage. Jodi Torpey’s book Blue Ribbon Vegetable Gardening: The secrets to Growing the Biggest and Best Prizewinning Produce (Storey Publishing $16.95) will help all those competitive gardeners out there, while some gardeners might think it is time to take up the challenge and enter their vegetables at the Franklin County Fair this year.

Planting a giant pumpkin may not be your dearest desire, but Torpey has lots of advice for those of us who just want to grow the most beautiful beans or carrots. I had my first painful lessons about showing off my beans and blackberries at my first Heath Fair in 1980. I put my berries in a pretty bowl and put my ten green beans on a pretty plate. The ladies who were setting up the Exhibit Hall took me aside to explain the presentation rules and gave me the regulation white paper plate for the beans which was very kind of them. The judges were also kind because they did leave a note on the back of my entry tag letting me know that uniformity in my beans would have brought me closer to a ribbon, and my blackberries needed to be shown in a standard cardboard berry basket. One year a young friend entered an apple pie that included raisins. He got a sharp note on the back of his tag saying that the apple pie class demanded a pie that contained only apples. I noted that the premium book for the Franklin County Fair specifically notes that apple pies should contain no nuts, raisins, cranberries or anything else and should not have a crumb topping.

I don’t think the Heath Fair book was so precise but Torpey stresses that gardeners should study the premium book and obey the rules carefully. When entering any contest you will have a better chance to win if you follow the rules. General rules for presentation are certainly laid out in this useful book.

For those whose competitive spirit does take them into the realm of biggest and giant vegetables Torpey has advice from choosing seed to care during the growing season and tips on harvesting and preparing the vegetable for show.

One of the big attractions at the Franklin County Fair is the Giant Pumpkin competition. I once attended a meeting of local giant pumpkin growers and they were full of information about seeds like Dill’s Atlantic Giant, and they traded seeds from giant pumpkins they had grown themselves the previous year. They also had stories about giant pumpkin events, like the year one group hollowed out their pumpkins, then jumped in to sit cross-leggedly with an oar and raced each other across a pond. I love imagining what that pumpkin regatta must have looked like. These are serious gardeners with a great sense of humor!

Torpey gives basic information, and professional tips for growing giant pumpkins. Who knew that a 300 pound pumpkin would need a 10 x 10 foot plot? Bigger pumpkins would need even bigger spaces. Then you have to be prepared to monitor your pumpkin carefully because as it ripens it can grow up to 50 pounds a day, and you don’t want it to  burst from too much rain or overwatering.

“Attention to detail,” Torpey says. “Protect your pumpkins from frost, wind, heat, sunscorch, and other stressors.” Strategic pruning the vine over the course of the season  is also essential.

The book is full of fun facts about the history of exhibiting giant vegetables. An early record of a giant pumpkin was a 245 pounder shown in Devonshire England in 1857. Thesedays giant pumpkins can weigh over a ton.

Girl with her giant cabbage

Girls with her giant cabbage courtesy of Ryan Donnell

I knew about giant pumpkins, but never thought about giant onions or giant cabbages. Tony Glover’s 18.11 pound onion made it into the Guinness Book of Records in 2014, and Alaska seems to be the place to raise giant cabbage. In 2014 young Garrett Streit’s 68.3 pound cabbage won the Junior Championship Award at the Alaska State Fair’s Giant Cabbage Weigh-Off. The secret to Alaska’s giant cabbages is the 20 hours of daylight in the summer. Lots of good illustrations.

Exhibiting vegetables is one way of getting children interested in gardening. Boys’ Corn Clubs were formed in the early part of the 20th century, when a county farmers institute organized a contest to get boys growing corn. Free seeds were distributed and $1 prizes were given to boys after yield per acre and production costs were calculated to decide the winners. The corn clubs for boys were so popular and such a good educational program that they ultimately led to the birth of the Future Farmers of America and 4-H clubs.

Jodi Torpey is a master gardener and has written books including The Colorado Gardener’s Companion. She has also created a digital class titled Vegetable Gardening: Innovative Small Space Solutions accessible from her WesternGardeners.com website. Torpey loves teaching gardening, but she also knows how to spark enthusiasm – and maybe some friendly rivalries. What kind of giant vegetable would you like to grow this year?

Between the Rows   February 13, 2016

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