Winning vegetables

Some people do all their growing with annual competitions in mind. Michael Leapman wondered whether his veg could cut it at a big show
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The Independent Online
THE LOCAL flower show is a cherished tradition of late summer, but organisers complain that the number of gardeners willing to pit their produce against their neighbours' is going down each year. The reason is that most of us believe the show benches are the preserve of a group of enthusiasts who devote all their efforts to growing vegetables and flowers specifically to win prizes.

Such people exist and I have nothing against them. But do those of us with a sporting instinct but less dedication have no chance of the odd prize? Can we share a ring with the greats, or will we end up like that hapless boxer who took on Mike Tyson in Las Vegas a few weeks ago? To find out, I entered some vegetables for this month's City of London flower show at the Guildhall.

The most common remark overheard at any such show, as visitors tour the prizewinning exhibits, is: "I can grow better sprouts/tomatoes/ carrots than that." It is often true: some of the stuff you and I produce is bigger and better. The two critical questions are whether we can deliver, say, 20 cherry tomatoes of a consistent shape and ripeness all at once and, more important, whether they will be at their peak on the day.

I am not a total novice. About 18 years ago I entered some small shows in south London and won a few prizes against sparse competition. The Guildhall, though, is big-league stuff and I am out of practice.

By the time I decided to enter it was too late to think of sowing anything specially. I ticked off the specialist classes for which I might have something ready. Potatoes, certainly, and tomatoes; leeks, parsnips, celery. And I thought I might be able to rustle up something for the two miscellaneous "any other vegetable" classes.

The hot, dry summer had its effect. My early potatoes, Marfona, had done well but had been dug some weeks earlier; judges prefer a fresher look. The main crops, a Dutch variety named Bintje, had suffered in the drought. But my wife, Olga, and I decided none the less to exhibit one variety each (you are allowed only one entry per exhibitor in each class).

We had high hopes for our tomatoes. A medium-fruited variety called Dario that I was growing for the first time was shaping up well, so were the cherry-sized Supersweet 100; but with tomatoes timing is all. They must be ripe, but not dark red and squidgy. In his book Growing for Showing, which I had kept from my 1978 venture, George Whitehead recommended picking some every day for the week before the show, as they were turning orange, and selecting the best on the day. I ended up, frustratingly, with several good ones that were just over the top, and others that would have been fine if the show had been a day later. On some, the calyx had withered, which judges do not like. To get six of roughly similar size, I had to rule out some of the biggest and best of both varieties.

To produce good leeks in early September you need to sow the seed indoors well before Christmas. I had sown mine outdoors in March, so they were skimpy, but I decided to let them take their chance anyway. And I found three parsnips that were not too bad and were fairly well matched.

Even I did not have the gall to exhibit my celery. A supposedly self- blanching variety (self-blanching celery is the greatest myth in gardening), it was straggly, tough and a dark shade of green. To make up for that, we made a surprise entry in the marrow class. The class includes other squashes and in the spring Olga had planted pips from a large blue-green squash called Crown Prince she bought at the supermarket. By midsummer they were rampaging all over the allotment, producing several enormous fruit.

We had two entries for "any other vegetables". A Jackpot pumpkin, only slightly misshapen, had ripened earlier than usual, and there was a succulent crop of Fordhook Giant, a variety of seakale beet (sometimes called Swiss chard) resembling spinach. Finally, it had been a good year for the old apple tree (Worcester Pearmain), so we decided to take half a dozen of its fruits along.

On the big day, the Guildhall was open from six am for the staging of exhibits; we were there by seven. Some exhibitors had staged their entries the night before and others were there before us. Altogether there were perhaps two dozen exhibitors, nearly all of them - I judged by their familiar conversation - regular showers around the south. The average entry per class was about eight, although some, like the apple groups, attracted many more. Looking at the benches, my heart sank: we were palpably out- classed.

I put my three sorry-looking leeks on the table beside three that were at least twice as long and thick, and immaculately blanched to boot. Their grower eyed me with frank alarm, as if fearing his precious specimens might catch something unspeakable from mine. He told me he had been nurturing them since the winter, growing them in a special kind of drainpipe that was no longer made. They won third prize, but he had even better ones in his collection of four vegetables, which won the major vegetable prize in the show.

After laying out our offerings as best we could, we went home. The judging took place between 10 and noon, when the hall was emptied of all competitors. We returned when the show opened to the public to discover the worst. The potatoes, tomatoes, leeks, parsnips and apples had gone unrewarded. So had the pair of Crown Prince squashes, although the judges had been courteous enough to append a little note explaining why. These were not, in their view, "fully mature" squashes.

Without questioning the expertise of the judges, I believe that in this instance they were wrong. Little has been written on the Crown Prince, but the 1994 edition of The Vegetable Finder says it should, when ripe, be steel-blue, which it was, and the flesh should be bright orange. That evening we ate one of the same crop: the flesh was the brightest orange imaginable, the flavour marvellous.

I shall not, however, be crying foul. In "any other vegetable", the pumpkin came fourth out of eight - and the seakale beet won the top prize. So the answer to my original question is yes, weekend gardeners can compete in the big time, but may stand a better chance with unusual vegetables.

The reward? A prize of pounds 8, but I couldn't be more thrilled if I had won the lottery.

! The seed for most of our vegetables came from Marshall's (01945 583407). The Jackpot pumpkin was from Unwin's (01945 588522) and the Bintje seed potatoes were bought in France. `The Fruit & Veg Finder' is published by the Henry Doubleday Association (01203 303517) at pounds 7.99