Garden Lifestyle

Growing for Competition

Find out what it takes to grow vegetables with prize-winning potential on the fair circuit.

Growing for Competition
A fig tree catches the first light in the Mosers' North Carolina Piedmont garden, where scores of plant varieties grow in the mounded beds.

The garden is growing to WTQR on this pretty, late May day. Usually the radio on top of the post is set on WBRF out of Galax, Virginia, but the station was playing bluegrass for some reason. So Harvey Moser dialed around for the George Jones brand of country music he and his wife, Susan, prefer. They aren’t just thinking of themselves. “We usually have it loud when we’re working in the garden,” Harvey says. “I think the plants like it.” Every advantage helps when you’re growing to win ribbons.

The sun over their garden in King, North Carolina, is firing on all cylinders. Soon the Mosers will be hitting the fair circuit: Stokes County, Surrey County, the Dixie Classic in Winston-Salem, and the North Carolina State Fair.

A small blemish on a hot pepper might mean the difference between a blue ribbon and a red ribbon, or no ribbon. As much as they can, the Mosers try to keep conditions in their garden just right for raising winning vegetables. The effort isn’t much different from growing them for your own consumption, unless you’re fixated on gigantics. The Mosers aren’t. The tough part is getting enough vegetable contenders at the right time and then shepherding them through the fairs.

The ground where it grows

The Mosers started gardening in the Piedmont about 25 years ago. “We wanted to be like hippies and grow everything we ate,” said Harvey. “That was back in the 70s.”  They started with three beds. “Then we took that in,” Susan said, with a wave down the south-sloping expanse of the garden. “Then we took that,” she said, motioning toward the east. “We’ve probably got more than we can handle.”

Not yet. Mounded beds, which the Mosers have enriched with compost from the city of Winston-Salem, follow the grade of the land. The beds are packed with diverse plants. “We spend a good vacation on seeds every year,” Harvey said.

The Concord grapes came courtesy of a friend who didn’t want to take them with him when he moved out of the way of a new road. Harvey went over in the winter ahead of the bulldozers and dug out the vine in a big cold block, keeping the roots intact. “They didn’t even know they’d been moved,” Harvey said.

The pair of growers acknowledge they must be “on their toes” for competitions. The garden needs to be kept up and there’s the weather to worry about. But the garden rewards them.

“We like to come out here after work,” says Susan, who has a job at a veterinarian’s office, while Harvey is a painter for the county. “It’s easy to unwind out here. We don’t need Valium. This is our Valium.”

Preparing for competition

Four years after getting started, the Mosers entered their first vegetable contest at the Stokes County Fair. “We would go over there and look,” Susan said. “We thought we had things that were that good.”  They’ve added more competitions and found more categories to enter as they’ve increased their horticultural holdings of scores of plant varieties. Going to shows has turned out to be a great way to learn, talk to other gardeners, and expand their gardening horizons.

Harvey Moser primps his hot peppers
Harvey Moser primps his hot peppers by trimming the stems so they are uniform in length.

The Mosers don’t necessarily choose their entries based on their own tastes. “It’s not what’s our favorite,” Harvey said. “It’s what looks best at the time.”

And what they expect the judges will appreciate. The Mosers enjoyed the mild flavor of their ‘Red Cylinder’ beets, about 8 inches long and tubular. So Susan, a steady winner in the pickled beets category, switched from the ‘Detroit Red’ variety she had been growing and pickling. But then she started losing. The judges didn’t appreciate the change, and she returned to the more familiar beet. She started winning again. “They picked up on the milder flavor,” Harvey said.

You always get ideas when you’re out on the fair circuit. “When I first got started I didn’t know a winning potato from a loser,” Harvey said, noting it’s the smooth, shallow-eyed spuds the judges like. But you’ve got to grow them first.
The Mosers said they’d had some trouble with seed potatoes rotting in the ground in wet weather. Harvey solved the problem by boring a hole with a bulb planter, dropping in the seed potato, and leaving it uncovered. It sprouts and grows fine in the cool darkness of the hole.

Toward the middle of October, the Mosers start thinking about the North Carolina State Fair. The ritual is the same every year. They take the week off to prepare by going through their garden to find seed-catalog-perfect specimens.

All the peppers did well, despite the lack of rain. Harvey rummaged through the foliage of the hot ‘Cherry Bomb’ peppers in search of contestants.

With hot peppers for the State Fair, you have to come up with a dozen samples. “All 12 of them have to be as close to perfect as possible,” Harvey said, as Susan searched the jalapeño plants for worthy entries. So while anybody might be able to come up with a few perfect peppers, the real test is coming up with a plate of them. Back at the house, the Mosers will cull the best of the best from their harvest and then trim, organize, and label them for the contest.

Judgment day cometh

The N.C. State Fair vegetable competition is about beauty. Taste, talent, and personality don’t matter. The best-looking and most uniform entries win. By 8 a.m., hundreds of entries on disposable white plates cover a long row of tables against the wall of the education building at the fair grounds in the state capital of Raleigh.

It isn’t just the ability to grow great vegetables that counts. You have to transport them from your garden to the fairgrounds. There they sit overnight, and strangers arrange them for judging. You have to hope for the best, that someone doesn’t drop your comely cabbage on the concrete floor or bruise your perfect ‘Scuppernong’ grapes. Greens don’t hold up well. The only category for greens was collards, which were in a limp heap.

Harvey Moser displaying the winning jalapenos
Harvey Moser displays the winning jalapenos he and his wife, Susan, spent the summer and fall nurturing.

Every entry is judged. Some categories —broccoli, for example—drew few contestants, while others, like hot peppers, were crowded. The judge had 44 hot pepper entries to assess, including the plate of 12 jalapeños the Mosers submitted.

The Mosers looked for some hint about the outcome from judge Charles O’Dell, a horticulturalist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. “We watched him go back and forth, looking ours over,” Harvey said. “That’s a good sign.”

Hundreds of fair goers filed by the vegetables, checking out the array. Inevitably, the behemoth pumpkins and watermelons drew the most interest. The big-produce competitors are a breed apart.

Rodney Morris of Pittsboro took second place with his 171.5-pound ‘Carolina Cross’ watermelon. He picked it September 18 and put it in the barn.

“I looked at it pretty much every day to make sure no rats got at it.” Rodney said. He moves it around with burlap from the tobacco markets. “I get one end and my wife gets the other end and we lift it up,” he said.

A friend of the Mosers won a ribbon with a big pumpkin in the Dixie Classic fair. “He should have brought it up here,” Susan said. “But he didn’t think it was big enough.” Sometimes distaste for hauling is stronger than the desire to win. “I helped him load it in Winston and hurt my back,” Harvey said, undeterred. “If it doesn’t win, you just put it back in the truck and take it home.”

The Mosers’ first-place showing in grapes proves their point. “There is no way I could have dreamed those muscadines would win, with those great big honkers up there,” Harvey said. “That’s what’s fun about entering fairs. You never know what’s going to win.”

The fair is a place to trade pointers, tip your hat, and engage in a little friendly sparring. Elmer M. Parsons of Foster, West Virginia, was down visiting his son, a local landscaper. He reported growing some big vegetables of his own, such as a cauliflower 12 inches across. “It was on TV in West Virginia,” he said.

No one’s getting rich on their winnings. The best plate of grapes gets $7, hot peppers, $15. The Mosers try to cover some of their expenses, like the hotel and gas.

The 1998 state fair was a good one for the Mosers, who enter separately. They won 43 ribbons for vegetables, including first places in hot peppers, popcorn, potatoes, grapes, and small tomatoes.

“You can see how easy it is to get hooked on these things,” Harvey said. “It’s almost like gambling.”

—John Bray is an associate editor at Kitchen Gardener.

Photos: John Bray.

April 1999

from Kitchen Gardening #20

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