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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.