In the Garden
Ralph Purkhiser, Purdue University Master Gardener

     I have been a horticulture judge for many years.  I have judged 4-H and FFA competitions and also open-class at many county fairs and at flower shows.  I have judged flowers, vegetables and field crops.  For many years, I judged at the Indiana State Fair.  I love doing the judging and try to use the occasion to teach people more about their crops.
     Next week, I will be judging at my first county fair of 2022.  County fairs have been moved up in order to get them in before the Indiana State Fair.  The State Fair has been moved up to try to get it in before school starts, but schools seem to just keep starting earlier and earlier.  At any rate, the earlier fairs have resulted in a lot of changes.  Exhibitors have to start seeds early inside to have produce or flowers for the early fairs.  The 4-H program now has options for notebook and poster exhibits in both the floriculture and gardening projects.  Flower arrangements may be constructed using purchased flowers and greenery, or even using artificial flowers.  Most field crop exhibits now consist of plants dug up from the fields instead of grain or finished crops.
     Judging 4-H projects is pretty standard, since the Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service establishes the criteria.  Club members are encouraged to be present at the judging in most counties.  I really like that arrangement, as I can ask questions.  The answers to the questions may be a deciding factor when determining champions in a project.  The important thing for 4-Hers is to follow the rules.  The project guides have standards that should be met.  For instance, in the gardening project, an exhibit plate is a specific number of specimens.  If an exhibit of green beans calls for twenty beans of equal size, that is exactly what needs to be on the plate.  There is no bonus for extra beans.  Size also matters.  This is not a “biggest zucchini” contest.  There is a chart in the manual that details the size every vegetable should be for exhibits.  Uniformity on the plate is also important.  Deductions for not following the exhibit rules may drop an exhibit from a blue ribbon to a red ribbon.  Completely ignore the rules, and you may end up with a white ribbon.
     Choose your best.  If you do not have the correct number of tomatoes of uniform size, shape and color, then do not exhibit tomatoes.  Make sure that your produce is clean and free of insect and disease damage.  Do not wax your vegetables to make them shine.  There are guidelines for the length of stems and roots to leave on vegetables.  Follow them!
     The 4-H floriculture project has many divisions.  As in the garden project, it is important to follow the rules as they are set forth.  One of the most-often ignored rules is how stems should be prepared for exhibit.  Stems should be cut at an angle to increase the surface available to take in water.  All leaves should be stripped from the portion of the stem that will be below water.  This is to prevent disease, which will shorten the time a bloom will look good.  It also looks better.
     Open-class exhibits differ greatly from county to county.  Read the guidelines your county sets forth in the fair book.  There may actually be a largest zucchini contest!  Find out how strict your county is about categories.  For instance, if there is a category for lilies, do they want only true lilies in that division?  Are there separate categories for daylilies, callas and other flowers that are called lilies, but are not true lilies?  Find out these things before the fair and make sure you enter the correct category.
     I have never seen a prize at a fair that is large enough to get a person to go crazy.  Remember that this is for fun and for learning.  Keep the competition friendly and do not get upset at the judge.  The best fairs make judging difficult, because every entry deserves a prize.


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