Secrets of State Fair Winners
You, too, can grow prizewinning vegetables and plants with tips from Kentucky State Fair blue-ribbon winners
No trip to the state fair is complete without a walk through the Kentucky Exposition Center to see displays chock-full of the state’s reddest tomatoes, largest pumpkins, most beautiful roses, and more.
For the entrants, it’s all about walking away with a blue ribbon—and bragging rights as the best of the best until next year.
We’ve asked some blue-ribbon winners from the 2009 Kentucky State Fair to share some of their tips and secrets for growing prizewinning plants and veggies.
Some, like Maggie Cody of Taylorsville, are relatively new at the fair competitions. Cody has entered the fair only the last two years, both times taking home the coveted Best Collection of Vegetables rosette.
Others, like Cathy Basham’s family from Cecilia—whose father, Leslie Wilmoth, 92, of Glendale, got them all started growing dozens of varieties of nuts since he started growing them himself more than 60 years ago—have been the perennial ones to beat in their chosen categories for years.
The tips they share will get you ready to meet your goals for the 2010 gardening season—whether you want to become a state fair prizewinner yourself, or just have the best flowers and vegetables on your own block.
Winning growing strategies
A. Compost is key. State fair prizewinners like Maggie Cody, who won Best Collection of Vegetables, and the Bunches of Louisville, prizewinning tomato growers, swear by their compost. It’s an easy, environmentally friendly way to get your soil fertilized and ready for planting each year. Cody throws in everything she can into her compost piles: shredded leaves, kitchen scraps, used tea bags, you name it.
“At the end of the year, I get in there and till that up really good. And so it sits there all winter. Then when you plant, it just really makes a difference in how things grow,” Cody says.
B. Start from seed. Most of the prizewinners say they like to start from seed, purchasing their favorite varieties from Burpee’s or other companies. But like prizewinning pumpkin grower Frank Mudd of Flaherty, Maggie Cody doesn’t buy her seeds: she harvests her own from the current year’s crop.
Preparing tomato seeds from the best-looking tomatoes can be tricky, Cody says. First, put the seeds in a quart jar with about a 1/4-inch of water. Stir them or shake them, three times a day, for three days. The bad seeds will float to the top and the good seeds will go to the bottom. Remove the good seeds and put them on a wire screen to dry. When dry, scrape them off the screen and store in a labeled envelope.
C. Start seedlings in a greenhouse. Prizewinning pepper grower Charles Mercer of Louisville is lucky enough to own a 30,000-square-foot commercial greenhouse, so his plants always have a warm place to get a hearty start. Michael Hardin of Louisville, who won the slicing cucumbers category last year, made his own 8' x 8' greenhouse at the back of his lot to start his plants.
But even if you don’t have a greenhouse, you can still start your seeds off right. Mercer recommends transplanting seedlings in a deep, 18-0-1 flat (these are deeper than conventional flats with cells that are 3" x 3" x 3" and allow the plants to develop a larger root system). Let the seedlings grow in the warmest room of your house, like a laundry room. On warm sunny days, set the flat outside on the porch to catch the natural light. Then you’ll be ready for planting in your garden, come early May. Mercer recommends planting out peppers no earlier than May 15.
D. Use raised beds and drip irrigation. Mercer saves endless hours of labor using a simple, inexpensive drip irrigation system and raised beds (he buys commercially available plastic film to line the beds from Martin’s Produce Supply in Liberty).
You can buy a drip irrigation system, which consists of a perforated hose, closed off at one end with a flow adapter at the other, or you can create your own by cutting perforations 12 inches apart on a length of hose, tie a knot at one end, and install a low-flow adapter at the other. Install the hose under the plastic cover of the raised beds (doing so eliminates wasted water, since condensation is trapped inside and returned to the plants). The plastic liner of the beds also reduces the need to weed between plants.
RAISING PERFECT ROSES
It was a 1998 visit to the Kentucky State Fair that first sold Howard Carman of Big Spring on the idea of growing roses. A representative of the Louisville Rose Society approached him and invited him to join their group—despite the fact that he didn’t have a single rose bush at the time. Now, his yard is home to 135 roses, in all varieties.
“If I’ve got a spot, there’s a rose there,” says Carman, whose expertise has grown to the point that he’s frequently asked to judge rose shows throughout the country.
At the 2009 fair, Carman swept the best of show categories in hybrid tea roses and took first, third, and best spray in best of show for miniature roses as well.
For anyone new to roses, Carman recommends starting with a miniature variety called Autumn Splendor, which grows well here even without dusting or spraying. For the hybrid teas, his favorite variety is Moonstone.
Here’s his step-by-step guide to growing prizewinning roses:
A. Cut roses back in the fall to about 1-1/2 feet. This helps prevent the winter wind from whipping the bushes about and loosening them in the soil. Then cover the crown of the rose with about 6 inches of mulch. Carman prefers cypress.
B. In the spring, remove the mulch. Clip the cane of the roses with pruners to examine the pith. If the pith is brown, prune back until you see a creamy white center, in order to cut off the dead parts that winter killed.
C. Apply an alfalfa tea mixture (see sidebar below to find the recipe) to the roses just after the green growth starts in the first of May, and after each bloom cycle. Add a cup of granular fertilizer (10-10-10) along with the tea mixture application.
D. Because not all the varieties Carman grows are disease-resistant, he sprays his roses weekly with a fungicide.
E. In preparation for a show, cut a few samples of each variety and bring them into your house. Watch how quickly or slowly they open. Then you’ll know how soon before the show to pick the ones you’ll enter. Judges look for roses with a tight center and outer petals that are just beginning to unfold. Typically, Carman picks his roses two days before a show.
F. To prepare your display, use a Q-tip to gently open up the outside petals. Clean the leaves with a wet cloth to remove spray residue, then rub them with a dry cloth to bring out a natural, waxy sheen.
Jo Ann Bunch and her husband, Donald—known to many in the Louisville area simply as “the tomato man”—have grown as many as 350 tomato plants in their Highview yard. Their favorite variety? Big Beef.
At last year’s state fair, their tomato expertise was evident: the couple took home first-place ribbons in the Red Round Slicer and Big Beef categories, as well as top prizes for the “best of” with at least three different large and three different small tomatoes. They also claimed the coveted blue ribbon for best overall tomato collection.
They offer these tips for growing prizewinning tomatoes:
A. Prepare the soil in October, tearing out and disposing of the old vines and sowing a cover crop like wheat or rye.
B. In the spring, fertilize the soil with dried horse manure (and occasionally lime if the soil requires it), and spray a fungus control on the ground before beginning planting, around the first of May.
C. Plant the tomatoes deep, putting Epsom salt (to provide calcium), slow-release fertilizer, and water in each hole. Bury each plant in the soil so that only the tallest three or four leaves are showing.
D. Plant the tomatoes about 3 feet apart, using wire cages to provide support. The Bunches make their own cages from reinforced concrete wiring, which is sturdier than the stuff found in most
commercially available tomato cages.
E. The Bunches use their own homemade compost, tilling it in before planting. After planting, they let the plants establish good growth before doing anything else.
F. When the plants are about 12 to 18 inches tall, surround each plant with wet newspaper (two to three pages, dipped in water, per plant) and mulch (dry leaves, pine needles, dry grass clippings, cornstalks, etc.). Remove some of the suckers from each plant at this point.
G. Fertilize three times during the growing season with Monty’s Plant Food (www.mymontys.com, developed by a Louisvillian), Miracle-Gro, and Scott’s products.
GIANT PUMPKINS AND WATERMELONS
Frank Mudd of Flaherty likes to grow things big. Very big. He’s repeatedly won the largest pumpkin and largest watermelon categories at the Kentucky (six times), Tennessee (twice), and Indiana state fairs (three times). His 2009 largest pumpkin winner at the Kentucky State Fair weighed in at 929.5 pounds, with a circumference of 12’11”. But his largest pumpkin to date came in 2008, when he won the Indiana State Fair with a 1,114-pound whopper.
Mudd’s 175.5-pound watermelon also took the blue ribbon at last year’s Kentucky State Fair. But his biggest watermelon ever was the 251-pound Carolina Cross variety he grew in 2008. It is the biggest ever grown in Kentucky, and among the top 10 in the world. Mudd says the world record is 268.8 pounds, grown in Hope, Arkansas.
Mudd says it was his wife, Mary Jo, who first got him hooked on growing big when she sent away for a packet of Atlantic Giant pumpkin seeds. The challenge of trying to best his personal record year after year is, he admits, addicting.
“It’s just trying to do the best you can to get the pumpkin to be as big as you can possibly get it,” says Mudd. “If it wins, fine, if it doesn’t, that’s fine, too. It’s between you and Mother Nature. Sometimes she’s your friend. Sometimes she’s your foe.”
Mudd’s blue ribbons don’t come easy. He estimates he spends four to five hours a day during the growing season tending to his giant pumpkins and melons. Here’s how he does it:
A. Mudd grows organically, shoveling lots of compost on his garden plot in the fall to prepare the soil. He tills that in, then sows a cover crop of winter rye around the first of October. In the spring, he tills in the cover crop and plants the pumpkins, around the first of April.
B. Giant pumpkins have a rapid growth spurt from day 20 after pollination to day 40, when they can grow as much as a pound and a half an hour. Mudd takes measurements daily, so he has a sense of each pumpkin’s approximate weight.
C. Because the pumpkins and watermelons grow so big that their leaves aren’t adequate to block them from the sun, Mudd makes tents to shade them from the time the fruits are basketball size. (Shade cloths are key when the temperatures rise above 90 degrees.)
D. Mudd buries the majority of the plants’ vines. This encourages them to take more roots, helping produce a healthier fruit.
E. Mudd cross-pollinates his pumpkins himself, cross-selecting ones with strong traits to try to grow even bigger, or even more orangey, ones next year. When the contests are over, he removes the seeds from the prizewinning pumpkins, and that’s what he plants the next year.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: ENTERING PRIZEWINNERS
For the recipe to Howard Carman’s alfalfa tea mixture to help your roses absorb nutrients, as well as more tips on growing and entering your prizewinners in the Kentucky State Fair, go to Entering prizewinners.