Hints & Tips for Growing & Showing
If you have ever considered showing at the local horticultural show, but thought that you could never compete with the seasoned exhibitors, think again! This brief guide will hopefully give you a few worthwhile tips on how to grow and show. Our members are keen to share tips with others. Some of the tips and ideas might be strange, but have proved to be a success in the past.
Please feel free to ask questions or share any of your tips. Also, please do not be afraid to enter our Show. Everybody is welcome to attend our monthly meetings whether as a member or visitor. Remember, hints and tips are free and it's free to enter our Show if you are a member or exhibitor. We welcome exhibitors whether they have one exhibit or thirty!
If you require help in staging or perhaps not quite sure which class the entry should go into, our stewards are on hand to help. You might feel that you question is silly, but we have probably heard it before. Don't be afraid, as there is a great buzz about showing and even more if you win a prize. It's not the winning but the taking part that counts.
Planning is probably the single most important part of growing for showing. Obtain a show schedule and choose which classes you intend to enter. If possible, attend a couple of shows as a visitor. It's surprising how different shows can be run. Look closely at the exhibits and talk to exhibitors. Most people enjoy talking about their hobby and there will be people on hand in the halls to help you stage your exhibits. Refer to the show rules and notes in the schedule for methods and times of staging. If you join the Society you will receive a schedule each year in March.
When you have decided what you wish to exhibit, place your order with one of the seed companies. Part of the enjoyment of gardening is the planning process and pouring over seed catalogues in the winter months. Plan your vegetable and flower sowing and planting times to ensure your produce will be at its best for the show you have chosen. For example, peas will take around 14 weeks from sowing to harvest, so mark in your diary accordingly when the seeds need to be sown. Onion seed is traditionally sown on Boxing Day to produce fine specimens for the September show, but remember bulbs will need to be lifted about three weeks ahead of the show to allow skins to ripen.
It certainly pays to keep a show diary in which to record exact dates of sowing, planting out and harvest as this will provide valuable guidance in future years and help you refine your timings so produce is “spot on” for show dates. The weather at the start of the season may require you to make some modifications because there is little point in planting seed in cold wet soil conditions.
Detailed information is available from magazines such as Garden News. They give regular updates on what you should be doing for each vegetable at particular points in the growing year. It gives an excellent starting point if you have not shown before and find it hard to obtain good advice.
Here are some tips to help you produce prize winning examples of some of the most widely grown species for the show bench:
Dig in well rotted manure in the autumn. Manure which is too fresh produces haulms (tops) at the expense of tubers. Leave the manured ground to weather over winter. In January/February stand seed tubers up in trays or egg boxes to “chit”. Place them somewhere light, airy and frost free. The objective is to achieve stocky, strong, green shoots. Once these shoots are around ½ inch, the tubers can be planted. Early and second early varieties can be planted from mid March to April. Draw out a trench about 6in deep and fill it with well rotted compost or the contents of spent growing bags. This will provide a soft and stone free environment in which the tubers can develop free from blemishes and cuts. Avoid mushroom compost for this purpose as its high lime content encourages scab. The addition of a general purpose fertiliser such as Growmore at the rate of 4oz per square yard is also advisable. Place the tubers in the trench about 12in apart. Cover with a mix of soil and compost and lightly firm the row.
For exceptional specimens some exhibitors grow their potatoes in beds of leaf mould, as this gives the skin a superb finish.
When shoots emerge above the soil, beware of frosts and be prepared to cover them. The best way to do this is to draw soil up into ridges over the shoots. When no more soil can be drawn over the shoots, protect them with horticultural fleece, ideally placed clear of the shoots them selves with a series of canes.
Keep the plants well watered through the summer months. When lifting early potatoes for July and August shows, do so very carefully. Their skins will not have set and they will damage easily. Immediately after lifting, wash them in cold water with a soft sponge, dry with a towel and wrap each tuber in tissue paper. Potatoes for summer shows are best lifted the day before the show.
Potatoes for autumn shows are lifted once the foliage has died down, when the skins have set. Lift on the day of the show if possible. Wash and dry them as above, and remember that once a potato’s skin has dried out, it is very difficult to clean it. Potatoes can sometimes start to turn green after washing, so wash them as close to the day of the show as you can. Aim to select potatoes with clean skins and shallow eyes. Uniform specimens each weighing about 6oz are good to aim for.
Dig out a trench about 9-12in deep in autumn or early spring, and line it with drenched, shredded newspaper to aid moisture retention. Then add some well rotted compost or Organic Extra and replace the soil. It is worth sowing half a row of your chosen variety direct in the cropping positions in the first week of May. The other half of the row can be taken up with plants produced from sowings made in pots in the greenhouse, again in the first week of May. This should ensure that one of the batches is producing beans for a late show. Additional sowings made in mid May and early June will provide beans for the September show. As a general rule it takes about 14 weeks from sowing to the first setting of the beans.
Plants grown up a single row of 8ft canes means they will not become tangled. Consequently straight beans rather than curled ones will be produced. Runner beans need plenty of water if they are to thrive. Spray foliage and flowers in the evening to promote a good setting. When the beans have set, a weekly high potash feed is beneficial.
Shows usually ask for between six and twelve runners per display. Aim to produce beans about 15in long, and ensure the ones you choose are the same length. You will probably have to select beans over three or four days to achieve this. Cut them with scissors, leaving about 1/2in of stalk attached. Wrap them one by one in a damp tea towel and place it in the fridge. Repeat the process on following days. Beans store well like this and keep their freshness surprisingly well.
At the show, display your set evenly spaced on a piece of black cloth, with the tails pointing to the judge. Do not be tempted to show runners which are becoming “beany” or old. The judge will snap one to check they are tender. If in doubt, use a slightly smaller bean rather than an old one.
Carrots & Parsnips
Root crops have fairly demanding soil requirements. Begin by digging in autumn, but do not incorporate manure as this encourages roots to fork. For long carrots, it is worth acquiring a crow bar with which to punch holes in the soil. Aim for a hole about 2ft deep and 4in wide. Fill the hole with a 50:50 mix of potting compost and sand and firm it down. Sow about four seeds per hole, then thin to the strongest seedling as they develop. Thin in the cool of the evening and water remaining seedlings well afterwards. Ensure the compost mix is moist at all times.
Lift carrots the day before the show, having watered them well the day before this. Pull the roots gently, applying more water if the offer resistance. Trim the tops down to around 3in/76mm. The foliage can be tied with raffia. Then wash the roots with a sponge, leaving the tap root hair at the bottom of the root. Select tender shoots of good shape and colour and free from side shoots. Aim for uniform roots, and never use any with green shoulders.
Carrots are usually shown in sets of three or five. They look particularly good displayed in a fan shape on black cloth but check the show schedule to see how they should be presented. Some shows ask for displays on plain white paper plates. These are usually to be supplied by the exhibitor. Shows may also have separate classes for long and stump rooted carrots.
Generally they can be grown in much the same way as carrots, but the prepared planting holes should be a little deeper and wider.
Both carrots and parsnips can also be grown above the ground in deep containers such as water butts or (very well cleaned) oil drums. Alternatively, some exhibitors grow their carrots and parsnips in drainpipes. Both butts and pipes can be filled with the compost and sand mixture.
Onions from Sets
The soil is best dug in autumn, ideally having been manured from a previous crop. Onions thrive in a neutral or slightly alkaline soil and the application of a general purpose fertiliser such as Growmore (4oz per square yard) is advisable. When planting the sets, be guided by the weather and soil conditions rather than by the date. For best results, plant rows 18in apart, with 12in between the sets in the row. Heat prepared onion sets can receive a setback if planted in cold soil or in a plot which has not been reduced to a fine tilth. When conditions are unfit for planting outside, these sets can be started in “shuttle trays” or “modules” in a cold greenhouse.
Keep well watered in dry spells. A weekly feed with a liquid manure is useful, while a high nitrogen fertilizer helps produce big bulbs – but beware because it can also lead to splitting if you overdo it. In late summer a potash fertilizer will ensure firm bulbs capable of storing well.
Once the leaves have fallen over in late summer, lift the bulbs carefully and leave them to dry for a few weeks on the surface. Careful drying off is important for skin finish. Loose skin can be removed but heavy skinning will lose you points on the show bench. Clean the bulbs with a damp sponge and then dry them thoroughly. Trim the tops to within 6in of the bulb, bend them over and tie them with raffia or green string. Display them on a plate or rings under a black cloth. Check the show schedule to ensure that they are displayed correctly. The advantage with onions is the same bulbs can be shown at more than one show, as they keep better than many other vegetables. Always aim for uniform bulbs with good skin colour.
Cauliflowers & Cabbages
Brassicas need a rich soil which has been liberally manured. Dig in plenty of well rotted farmyard manure or Organic Extra in the autumn and leave the soil to weather over winter. A light dressing of lime the following February is beneficial. Ensure the soil is well firmed prior to planting. Sowings are best made individually in cells to ensure strong development and to prevent checks to the plants’ growth at planting out time. Autumn shows require mid April sowings. When planting out, allow plenty of space to give good air circulation. Two feet between plants each way is about right. Cover the young plants with netting if pigeons are a problem in your area. Keep the plants well watered throughout the growing season. Successional sowings of cauliflowers over a period of weeks help avoid “buttoning” or blind plants, and gives a better chance of quality heads at show time.
As the curd forms, bend a large leaf over it to keep it white and protected from the sun. On the day of the show, lift the plant and wash it with a sponge. Make sure the curd is undamaged. Trim the roots, leaving a 3 in stalk, and remove any damaged leaves. Trim the leaves around the curd with scissors, so it resembles an acorn in its cup. Many schedules call for a pair of cauliflowers, but if you find yours are not the same size, trim the foliage of the smaller one rather more than that of the larger one to create a better impression. Spray the curds with a little water just prior to judging.
Choose solid vegetables with clean fresh centres and lift the plant on the day of the show. Wash the roots, leaves and heart thoroughly, leaving a 3 in root stalk. Like cauliflowers, cabbages are usually judged in pairs.
Sowings made in early April and early May usually give beetroot to cover the autumn show season. Earlier sowings are more inclined to “bolt” (prematurely run to seed). The soil can be autumn or spring dug. Do not add farmyard manure, as this causes the roots to fork, but the addition of spent growing bags or potting compost is useful. Remove as many stones from the soil as possible. Sow the seed, then thin the seedlings to 4in apart. Do this in the evening and water remaining seedlings back in well.
Keep plants weed free, but take care when hoeing. If the hoe touches the roots, it will mark them and spoil their shape. As the roots push out of the soil, replace it with potting compost or finely sieved soil to prevent the root tops becoming “corky”. Water, then lift the roots the day before the show. When picking roots for the show, go for those which are blemish free and about the size of a tennis ball with small tap roots.
Trim the foliage to within 3in/76mm of the root only if the schedule demands it. Some require foliage to be left intact. Beetroots are usually shown in sets of three or five. It is important the roots have a good colour throughout, but not distinct rings. To prevent rings, plunge the cleaned roots into a bucket of water to which two tablespoons of salt has been added. Leave for three hours to encourage internal reddening.
Seed is best sown in January in trays of compost. Transplant seedlings individually to 3in pots when large enough to handle. Keep them in an unheated but frost free greenhouse until late April, when they can be transferred to a cold frame before planting out to their final positions in May. Leeks thrive on rich organic matter, so incorporate plenty of well rotted farmyard manure or Organic Extra during autumn digging of the plot. Set out the young plants about 12in apart. Prepare holes 6-8in deep with a dibber (or crowbar) and place a plant in each hole. Fill the hole with water, but do not attempt to refill the hole with soil. This planting technique is unique to leeks. Keep the plants well watered from now on.To blanch the stems, plastic drainage pipes about 12-18in long and 3in diameter can be carefully placed over them when the plants are about 12in high. Plants benefit from regular feeding, but take care with high nitrogen fertilizers as these may cause the stems to split.
When lifting leeks for the show, dig up the plant carefully with the plastic pipe still in place. Trim the roots to about 2in until the pipe is able to slide off the bottom end. Reject any leeks which have bulbous ends or which are in any way blemished, damaged or misshapen. Remove damaged lower leaves and sheaths until you come to the first intact sheath. Remove damaged upper leaves and fold down the remaining ones before lightly tying them with raffia. Then clean the leeks by total immersion in a tub of cold water. Leek presentation is relatively straightforward, placing them flat and evenly spaced on the bench, or on a board as determined by the schedule. Shows normally require three or four leeks so ensure they are uniform.
Blanch and intermediate leeks should be more than 14 in/35 cm from the base to the button (the point where the outer most leaf opens out). Pot leeks should not be more than 6 in/15 cm from base to button with thick stems and 2in of roots. They are usually staged flat.
Sow the seed just below the surface in a tray of peat-based compost. Germination takes 6 - 14 days at 24C (75F) Sow early in the year for greenhouse crops, and early spring for the outdoor ones. When the seedlings have made two pairs of true leaves prick them out into 3in (7.5cm) pots - see Pricking Out - and place them in a light, warm place indoors or in the greenhouse. The object is to produce short-stemmed sturdy plants. Transplant when the first flowers are showing. The greenhouse plants can be set into well-prepared border soil, into large pots or into units for ring culture. The most widely used method is the growing bag, allowing three cordon plants to each bag.
Outdoors a warm, sunny site is needed to ensure a good crop. After hardening off, set cordon plants 2ft (60cm) apart in rows 3ft (90cm) apart, bush plants 3ft (90cm) apart. Do this after the last expected spring frost. Both cordon and bush plants will do well in growing bags or large pots on a sunny patio against a south-facing wall or fence. Bush varieties need no attention other than a mulch to protect the fruit from being splashed and, in northern districts, protection with cloches to increase the yield of ripe fruit.
Cordon varieties, both in the greenhouse and outdoors, need support. Those outside can be given a bamboo cane to which the plant's stem is tied with either plastic string or raffia. In the greenhouse the stem of the plant is loosely tied to a length of string with the other end tied to a horizontal wire under the roof.
Plants in growing bags should be watered according to the instructions on the bag and fed with a liquid fertiliser. This should start when the fruit on the first truss has reached pea size. Cordon plants also need the side shoots removing.
Pollination of greenhouse plants can be assisted by gently shaking the plants and by spraying occasionally with water.
For showing, select fruit of the right size, shape and colour for the variety. Fruit must not be overripe or with hard “green back” colouring around the calyx. Sever the fruit at the “knuckle” just above the calyx and aim for a uniform firm set of fruit with firm fresh calyces. Stage on a plate, calyx uppermost.
Finally, some general tips for the big day!
Ensure that your exhibits are clean.
Ensure that they are of uniform size.
Ensure that they are free from injury and blemish.
Ensure that they are not immature or overripe.
Keep a Diary with the following details noted for each type of vegetable. This will help you to plan and improve in future years.
Type of Feed