Jessica Pierson is a full-time horticulture instructor at Lake Land College in Mattoon, Illinois. She holds an M.S. in natural resources and environmental sciences.

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Blue Ribbon Gardening
by Jessica Pierson       #Advice   #Edibles   #Misc   #Vegetables

Growing and exhibiting vegetables is an exciting way to get more than food from your vegetable patch. In addition to possibly winning a ribbon and a small amount of prize money, you’ll get the thrill of competing, the opportunity to learn about new varieties and inspiration for the future.

Typically, a county or state fair’s horticulture category includes commonly grown vegetables such as tomatoes, corn and beans. Categories such as chili peppers, leafy greens and kohlrabi may be included. Many fairs also have just-for-fun categories such as longest cucumber, garden freaks and oddest root vegetables.

Almost any gardener can participate. Few supplies are required, and you can grow in containers, raised beds or traditional gardens. The key to success lies in following the four P’s of exhibiting: Plan, Prepare, Proceed and Place.

To get a premium book with entry categories and rules, find your county fair online (for example, and look for “Fair Book” on the home page. Winners actually win money, although not very much.

Choose your venue. Garden clubs sometimes have judged shows, but also consider the county or state fair. Most counties have a “premium book,” available online, that lists the different departments and entry categories. Vegetables are typically in the horticulture or home economics department. For example, the listing in the Will County premium book lists three bean categories: Beans, green (20); Beans, yellow (20); and Lima Beans (20). The number means 20 beans for each entry.

The premium book also lets you know the rules. The rules are very important, says James Schmidt, an Illinois State Fair judge and University of Illinois Extension staff member. “Get a show book,” he advises. “Look at the classes and see if there’s something interesting to enter.” He notes that it can be “heartbreaking” as a judge to see an excellent entry that has a mistake that could have been prevented by reading and following the rules. He also warns against assuming the premium book will be the same from venue to venue – careful reading is a must!

Once you know which vegetables you would like to grow, begin searching for suitable varieties. Hybrids are often suggested because they have some disease resistance and offer consistency among fruits. With tomatoes, for example, hybrids have been developed that offer resistance to some or all of five common diseases: verticillium, fusarium wilt, nematodes, tobacco mosaic virus and alternaria stem cankers.  Choosing ‘Big Beef VFFNTA Hybrid’, for example, would give you resistance to all five pathogens.

Another reason hybrids are encouraged is that they will produce fruits with greater uniformity and consistency than open-pollinated or heirloom varieties. Whether you generally root for the hybrid or non-hybrid team, for exhibition purposes, hybrids will give you the visual appeal sought by many judges. Look for the word “hybrid” or “F1” to denote hybrid status.

A final planning consideration is timing. If you have decided, for example, to enter the corn category and the fair is on August 1, you need to find a variety that will be at its peak color and flavor a few days before that time. Corn takes anywhere from 58 days (‘Earlivee’) to 92 days (‘BiQueen’). Taking into account Northern Illinois’ fickle spring weather and an average annual last hard frost date of April 20, a variety that can be planted in late May would be ideal, giving the crop approximately 75 days to mature. Two varieties that meet those conditions are ‘Ambrosia’ (a sweet white corn) and ‘Sugar and Gold’ (a sweet bicolor corn).

Armed with your seeds, premium book, and dreams of summer, now consider how to best prepare your seeds and media for a blue-ribbon crop. Proper soil analysis is the first step. Learning the pH of your soil and the fertilizer requirements will help your plants more closely resemble the picture on the front of the seed package. A pH chart for vegetables can tell you what pH they need. Your soil test will also help you better understand what nutrients may be deficient in your soil. (North Carolina State University Extension has a helpful pH chart at

Also decide whether to start your seeds indoors or wait to direct sow. Since you will need to have your vegetables ready for exhibition by a certain date, starting seeds indoors gives you a head start as well as a more controlled environment. Some varieties, such as leafy greens, root vegetables and beans, do not transplant well, however. Checking with a reliable source, such as Extension material or a trusted friend, can help you decide.

With a prepared seedbed, now turn your attention to planting your seeds. Sow your first crop a few days before you expect to have ideal conditions. The next crop should go in a few days after you think conditions are ideal. Plant a final crop a week after germination or transplanting has been successful. Planting in sequence will help ensure a ready crop of vegetables to choose from when it is time to show your vegetables later in the season.

During the growing season, follow a regimen of weeding, watering and watching. Be on the lookout for the following:

•  Signs of disease or pests. Identify the disease and begin a treatment program right away: Check with the University of Illinois Extensions webpage for identification and treatment recommendations.

•  Drastic changes in environmental conditions, such as available light, wind and precipitation. Try to provide ideal growing conditions.

•  Splashing liquids on the plant leaf during watering. Fungal diseases and leaf scorching can result from not watering at the soil level.

•  Cuts, bruises and other defects. You may need to trim off stems that rub on a developing fruit, watch for abnormal growth patterns, and keep developing fruits off of the ground when possible.

Another technique used by experienced exhibitors is to train the vegetable plant to grow in a certain way by “stopping,” disbudding or thinning the plant. Cucumbers can be stopped by taking off the terminal bud (the leaf bud at the top of the stem). This encourages the plant to produce stronger and bushier side growth. Disbudding is the process of removing lateral or side flower buds from a plant to encourage erect upward growth. Tomatoes respond well to disbudding, which can encourage better fruiting. A final technique, thinning, involves selectively removing some of the fruit or entire plants to encourage the remaining fruits or plants to grow larger.

When the big day draws near, it’s time to put your exhibition game into high gear. The most important step as you prepare your entry is to read the premium book and take your time. The premium book tells you exactly what your entry should include, from the type of display plate to size and quantity of items allowed. Knowing how many specimens and their size is important before you head out to the garden armed with your clippers.

The timing of when to pick is important as well. Varieties such as sweet corn and leafy greens do not hold well. Root vegetables and squashes are less perishable and therefore can be picked earlier. Generally, it’s best to pick just before the peak of ripeness as some ripening will occur while your product is on display.

When you go to the garden to make your selections, Schmidt offers the following advice:

•  Don’t fall for “biggest is best.” Larger vegetables can be woodier and/or less flavorful than normal-sized counterparts. A uniform exhibit is crucial to success.

•  Stick with one variety per entry. Don’t include ‘Blue Lake’, ‘Derby’ and ‘Top Crop’ bush beans in the same entry. Though it can be tempting to choose the best-looking among the three, judges want to see only one variety in an entry.

•  Choose vegetables that are nearly all the same in size, color, size and maturity.

•  Use your seed catalog or other horticultural guides to determine the fruits that are most “true to type.” The photographs in a seed catalog most often portray ideal shape, color, size and texture.

•  Use your premium book as a guide to select the best candidates. For example, if onion tops need to be 8 inches long, choose only the ones that meet that standard, even if there are more attractive ones with 6½-inch tops.

•  Don’t panic if you can’t find all perfect vegetables. Schmidt says that “there may be minor imperfections to the vegetables, but if they’ve been cleaned, washed and trimmed well, they make a good appearance.”

•  Don’t be afraid to ask fellow exhibitors and friends their opinion before you pick your vegetables. Their objectivity and experience can help you see things you might have overlooked, such as the ideal shade for an eggplant.


Vegetables are judged by a variety of criteria. The rutabaga (top) won its blue ribbon for being the largest one in the competition. Uniformity, color and shape are also important.

When you’ve chosen your specimens, remember to cut the stem according to the premium rules. Cut or dig carefully to prevent bruising or damaging delicate plant parts. Post-harvest produce should be kept in the refrigerator in a closed container. Some varieties do best with a dampened paper towel in the container, especially fresh herbs such as basil and cilantro. More do’s and don’ts can be found in Schmidt’s article, “Exhibiting Vegetables” at

The final step is to prepare your entry. Depending on the variety, dirt can be washed off with a soft brush or cloth, or by washing gently in the sink. Wipe dry to discourage fungal growth. Wrap in newspaper or cloths for transport and place in a sturdy container such as a laundry basket or bushel basket. Pack a few extras, too, as “insurance.” Remember to fill out your entry card properly and bring the required size/color/material plate and other required props for exhibition.

Once you arrive at the fair, you are ready to set up your display. Place the required number of specimens on the plate in an attractive arrangement. Double check to make sure everything is the correct length and, as Schmidt strongly suggests, recount your specimens. He notes a common beginner mistake is usually something simple “like putting the wrong number [on the entry card]” or “not making a last counting before you step away.” Now it’s time for the judges. Schmidt says that he loves being a judge because he gets to see gardeners show off their talents and take pride in the competition. He also really enjoys interacting with the exhibitors and developing relationships with them (Hint: talk to your judges; they are people, too!) During judging, the horticulture building is usually closed for a few hours. Once the judging is over, you are welcome to take a peek for a blue, red or white ribbon bedecking your labors of love.

One more encouraging piece of advice from Schmidt is specifically for beginners. “It’s fun to see new people become interested in exhibiting at fairs and watch them grow in their skills as gardeners and exhibitors.  It’s fun to see the faces of novices when they get that blue ribbon or even better – best of show for that crop.” Remembering those 4 P’s – planning, preparing, proceeding, and placing – can carry you and your veggies all the way to the top!


A version of this article appeared in Chicagoland Gardening Volume 20 Number 2.
Photography courtesy of Jessica Pierson.


Posted: 03/05/17   RSS | Print


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