Gardening: How to win first prize

Perfection, whether in a nosegay, a bunch of giant onions or a Victoria sponge, is what flower shows are all about. And there's one near you.

A WEEK last Friday, before supper, I went out into the garden to pick some raspberries. I took with me a pair of reading glasses, sharp scissors and a deep tray, lined with crumpled kitchen roll. If that seems excessive attention to detail, I have to admit that those raspberries were not for eating, but for entering into the village flower show. The specs were so that I could see, the scissors to cut the raspberries off with stalks intact (the show schedule stipulated that they be "unhulled"), and the tray so that I could lay them down as carefully as if they were eggs.

I was taking a chance; it was towards the end of the summer raspberry season. Three weeks before, these `Malling Jewel' had been magnificent, but I had to search diligently to find a good 20 berries. I took them inside, where the children and I examined them and, after much discussion and comparisons, separated the 12 most uniform berries, all on the point of ripeness. The show schedule asked for 10, but I would need a couple of spares, just in case.The rest of the long, light evening was spent gathering perennials, roses and other outdoor plants, and putting everything, bar the raspberries, into water in buckets in the cool utility room.

Our flower show is held in a village hall, not a tent. By 8am on Saturday there was a clutch of cars in the car park, from which were emerging tiny flower arrangements in thimbles, runner beans wrapped in damp towels, sweet peas in vases, Victoria sponges in biscuit tins, folders of holiday photographs, embroidered maps of the county. It was the sum (or that part fit for public view) of our collective skills and preoccupations. In the Children's Section, Lego figures, model gardens and fantastical shapes carved out of vegetables were hovered over by lip-biting youngsters, absently waving their parents away.

In the afternoon we gathered once more, for tea and talk and "a good look round". When I arrived at the fruit section, I could not hide my disappointment. I had got first prize - but in a class of one. Provided that I put in only 10 berries, that they were raspberries, not blackberries or loganberries, and not shockingly sub-standard, I was always going to get first prize.

Fortunately, other classes were much better supported and I had my come- uppance when I took only a third in the Vase of Garden Flowers class (that will teach me to be complacent). We neighbours stood around being nice about each other's produce. No one owned up to wanting to win prizes, of course; we all said we did it to "support the show", but there was something rather touching about our efforts, and the fact that we had left our Internet surfing, our shopping trips, our day out at the seaside, to participate in a still-living tradition - of excellence, of skill, of right-minded, respectable, regulated competitiveness.

The greatest enemy of thriving flower shows, like so much in country life, is ignorance. The canard most often heard is that the people who show fruit and vegetables think that only size matters. But size counts only when accompanied by quality and, as it takes more skill and care to grow a large, firm onion - not soft from too much nitrogenous fertiliser, or with a cracked skin from irregular watering - you cannot blame the judges for usually awarding the prizes to the largest ones. Another canard is that you have to spray with chemicals to get produce into the kind of condition to please judges. Tell that to organic gardeners, with all their mechanical stratagems for foiling pests. And, while it is true that show schedules have not exactly kept up with changing tastes in gardening, there have been serious nods in the direction of modernity in recent years, with new classes for unusual vegetables and hanging baskets, in particular.

Experience in showing helps a little, it is true: knowing that plums should not have their bloom brushed off, nor apples polished, and that courgettes should be no longer than 6in, and preferably retain their flowers. But this you learn as you go along, by talking to people or by reading The Horticultural Show Handbook, published by the RHS.

So, if there is a flower show near you in the coming weeks (and they occur in towns and cities, as well as in the country), why not measure your efforts objectively against those of others and, at the same time, add something colourful, worthwhile and entirely innocent (well, usually) to community life. You may be surprised how much fun it is.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week