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This is an excerpt from

BLUE

RIBBON
VEGETABLE
GARDENING
Available December 2015

edited by Carleen Madigan and Elizabeth P. Stell


art direction by Carolyn Eckert
cover design by Jeff Canham and Carolyn Eckert
book design by Kelley Galbreath
indexed by Christine R. Lindemer, Boston Road Communications
cover photography by Ryan Donnell, except authors photograph by John Pendleton

Interior photography:
Ryan Donnell, 3, 23, 31, 111, 120, 157 (right); Courtesy of Dixondale Farms, 128; Jodi Torpey, 154;
John Pendleton, 157 (left);

2015 by Jodi Torpey

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CONTENTS
Preface 1
CH APTE R 1

THE
COMPETITIVE
LEGACY 5

C HA P T E R 7

CUCUMBERS

95

C HA P T E R 8

EGGPLANT

109

CH APTE R 2

WHY NOT
GI V E IT A GO?

C HA P T E R 9

15

CH APTE R 3

BLUE RIBBON
BASICS
A PL A NTING
CHECKLIS T

37

CH APTE R 4

BEANS

123

C HA P T E R 10

PEPPERS

137

C HA P T E R 11

PUMPKINS

155

C HA P T E R 12

47

SQUASH

CH APTE R 5

BEETS

ONIONS

171

C HA P T E R 13

TOMATOES

65

191

CH APTE R 6

CABBAGE

79

Acknowledgments 206
Resources 207
Bibliography 208
Index 210

The Schnicker family


of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa,
grows giant vegetables
each year for the Iowa
State Fair.

I cant promise youll gain fame or fortune


by entering your homegrown vegetables in a
contest, even if you follow every strategy. What
I can promise is that youll have a bit of fun,
meet some interesting folks, and gain a new appreciation for the traditions of our countrys rich

agricultural heritage. If you need a simple mantra


to encourage you to plant a prizewinning garden,
remember this: Seeds want to sprout; plants want
to grow.

CH A P T E R 1

THE
COMPETITIVE
LEGACY
YOU KNOW YOU GROW GREAT TOMATOES. YOUR FAMILY KNOWS

you grow great tomatoes. Heck, even your neighbors cant wait to
get their hands on your garden-grown goodies. So why not take your
best vegetables to the fair for some official accolades? Like the fairs
other competitive events, a vegetable competition is a challenging
opportunity to walk away with ribbons and some prize money.
If you happen to have a natural competitive spirit, the bragging
rights alone may be the best reward of all.

"

THE GARDENER

VERSUS THE

FUTURE FARMERS

collect miniature
pumpkins for
competition.

DO YOUR RESEARCH

Select for reliability. You can prevent some


plant problems by selecting fruits and vegetables
bred to be disease-resistant. Plant breeders
have spent years tinkering with vegetables so
theyll grow well in different climates and produce consistent crops of good quality. Look
for plants labeled as F1 , a first-generation hybrid
thats the result of crossing two pure plant lines.
Some popular examples of hybrids include
Premium Crop broccoli; Straight Eight cucumbers; and Sungold, Better Boy, and Celebrity
tomatoes.

23
WHY NOT GIVE IT A GO?

As with any good project, planning is key. It pays


to start thinking about the end of the season
before the season actually begins. During the
off-season, research the fruits and vegetables you
want to grow. Read through seed catalogs and
look for vegetable varieties with descriptors that
signal potential prizewinners: reliable, consistent, prolific, dependable, huge yields, delicious,
flavorful, and good performer. Look for regional
information to help you find plants that will
do especially well in your gardening area.

CHAPTER 2

Ginger and
Chuck Werner

WHEN I CALLED ABOUT ENTERING


the vegetable competition at the Colorado
State Fair, the clerk told me most competitors were members of clubs, but individual
entries were welcome, too. When she said
clubs I assumed she meant garden clubs.
Actually, the clubs are for teens, groups
like 4-H and the National FFA Organization
(also called Future Farmers of America).
I didnt learn this until after I got up before
dawn and drove 2 hours to get to the fair.
I also discovered that these young competitors can enter the open classes
as well as junior classes.
So there I was, the only adult competing against kids and these kids were
taking the competition very, very seriously. In addition to individual championship honors, a Best of Counties award
was at stake.
I tried to remain invisible until my vegetable class was called. During the hot
pepper competition, one of the young competitors pointed to my plate of 10 colorful
and creatively arranged Mariachi peppers.
He asked, with more than a hint of surprise
in his voice, Did you grow those?
That was right before the judge began
shuffling the entries around the table
as he inspected each and ranked them in
order. For a brief moment, my peppers
were first, before he moved them to the
second-place spot.
To tell the truth, I was relieved to get
out of there with a couple of red ribbons
and some of my gardening dignity intact. I
didnt mind at all losing to a future farmer.

Judges spend
considerable time

examining the quality


of each entry, looking
for picture-perfect
specimens that represent
the market ideal for
that vegetable class.

HANSEL

CLASSIC

BLACK BEAUTY

FENG YUAN

WHITE STAR

CHECKLIST FOR

BLUE RIBBON

EGGPLANTS

120

LOOK FOR FRUITS that are medium to large and firm,


with a uniform, deep color and glossy sheen. To make sure
eggplants are ready to exhibit, apply the thumbprint test.
Lightly press your thumb into the eggplant. If the pressure
leaves a dent, the eggplant is not ripe and shouldnt be harvested. If the thumbprint springs back its ready to be picked.
Harvest eggplant as close to the competition as possible, so the cap or calyx is fresh and green, with no brown
edges. Use hand pruners, scissors, or a knife to cut fruit
from the plant. Cut into a sample fruit to make sure seeds
are still soft; hard seeds mean an eggplant is overmature.
Exhibiting younger fruit at the fair is better than showing
specimens that are past their prime. Handle carefully to
prevent bruising or dulling the skin with oily fingerprints.
PICK

PRESENT

Heavy, firm, shiny


eggplant
Uniform color
Small blossom scar
Cap and stem still
attached
Unblemished skin

Handle with care to


prevent bruising
Gently wipe with a
damp cloth; dont
scrub or polish; trim
stem to specifications
(usually 1 inch beyond
calyx base)

PASS

Undersized or overmature with hard seeds


Dull skin or off-color
for the type
Bruises, dark spots,
blemishes, or damage
Dry, brown cap

+ BLUE RIBBON PROFILE ?

ADVICE FROM

THE ONIONMAN
BRUCE F R ASIER

IF YOURE WORRYING about the

128

onion transplants you spent all afternoon planting, multiply that amount of
worry by 900 million. Thats the number of onion plants Bruce Onionman
Frasier frets about every season. As
president of Dixondale Farms in Carrizo
Springs, Texas, Bruce is in charge of one
of the largest onion-growing operations
in the country.
People are dependent on us to make a living,
Bruce says. Because of the popularity of locally
grown produce, farmers markets and roadside
stands are no longer a hobby. Its a business for
them. Bruce understands that even for home gardeners, each order means someone will be on their
hands and knees in their gardens planting an average of 10 bundles, with 50 to 70 plants per bundle.
Bruce says the most important consideration for
growing good onions is selecting the right variety for
your area of the country. If you plant short-day varieties in the northern states, the onions wont have
enough time to make much top growth. If you plant
long-day varieties in the southern states, the plants
will keep making tops and wont ever form a bulb.
If you want to grow blue ribbon onions, youll
need to do a little math to make sure you get the
timing right. A perfect onion has 13 rings, Bruce
says, and each ring corresponds to a leaf on the
plant. Plants arrive with 4 leaves, so they need to
grow 9 [more] leaves. An onion shoots a new leaf

once every two weeks, he explains. So for great


onions you need 18 weeks of growing, which is
126 days or 4 months. June 21 is the vernal equinox,
the longest day, so every onion will have to have
started bulbing by then or not at all.
To figure your planting date, count back 126
days from that June date, which makes it difficult
for onion growers in areas with short seasons.
Bruce says its hard to grow big onions because gardeners have to have their transplants in the ground
by February 21. Most settle for equally perfect but
smaller-sized onions.
Bruce says that although you need to speed up
growing tops, overwatering isnt the answer. Selecting
the right variety, having good loose soil, and fertilizing
provide the best chance for success. Once plants have
developed a good root system, they need a steady
diet of nitrogen to make foliage and keep growing.
Anything that harms the leaves is a problem
because the leaves affect the size and health of the
bulb. So its important to protect foliage from spores of
harmful fungi. If onion diseases are a problem in your
area, that might mean using an organic or synthetic
fungicide to keep onion tops disease-free. If youre
east of the Mississippi, theres high humidity, and
spores can be created within 10 hours of leaf wet,
Bruce explains. Even if the weather then dries, he says,
spores can survive on the ground. When it rains, the
spores splash up and can reattach to the leaves.
As much as you may want to grow colossal onions
to exhibit at the fair, in some parts of the country you
simply cant grow extra-large onions. Thats why
Dixondale Farms also sells boxes of jumbo-sized
sweet Texas onions for grilling instead of growing.

WILD GOURDS

Pumpkin stems
are square and
woody; squash
stems are round
and tender.

157
PUMPKINS

Giant pumpkins are usually entered in a separate contest, and its not a beauty contest
either. One of the most vivid (and politically
incorrect) images Ive read describing a giant
pumpkin comes from Michael Leapmans book
The Biggest Beetroot in the World. In Leapmans
words, a giant pumpkin is more telegenic than
a long carrot because of its bright amber skin
and shape faintly reminiscent of a fat ladys
bottom on a saucy seaside postcard.
Giant pumpkins are judged by weight,
and prize money is significantly more than
in other pumpkin contests. Some giant pumpkin weigh-offs have a minimum weight for
specimens or require an attached five-sided
stem to prove its not a squash. Many giant
pumpkin weigh-offs are events sanctioned
by the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth (GPC),
an international organization that developed
standards and regulations for weigh-offs
around the world.
Other qualities besides weight can determine jumbo pumpkin winners. Contests for
the largest pumpkin are judged by measuring
around the fruit from stem to blossom end
and also around the midsection. The sum of
these two measurements gives the total number of inches. In case of a tie, the pumpkin
that weighs the most is declared the winner.

CHAPTER 11

GIANTS AMONG US

PUMPKIN ANCESTORS didnt hold


quite the appeal their modern-day relatives
do. The wild Cucurbita pepo gourds that
originated in South and Central America
were small with bitter flesh. The only edible parts were the oil-rich seeds, and the
gourds were more useful as containers
than food.
It took many years for humans to develop
pumpkins into the colorful round fruits
we celebrate today. The early-cultivated
pumpkins were probably lumpy on the
outside and stringy and bland on the inside.
Surely the Pilgrims had to learn to love or
at least tolerate the texture and taste of
pumpkins if they wanted to survive those
first trying winters.
Of the cultivated pumpkin-type
Cucurbita, gardeners are most familiar with
varieties of C. pepo. These are ones we
grow into jack-o-lanterns. Another common
species is C. moschata; it includes pumpkins and winter squash. Cucurbita maxima
includes pumpkins that can reach mammoth proportions.