“If you can grow it, you can show it at the N.C. State Fair.”
This motto sums up the State Fair’s horticulture competition, although there are some very specific rules you must follow. April Blazich, N.C. State Fair horticulture superintendent, offers her expertise on how to start growing good vegetables now in hopes of bringing home a prize in October.
For first-time exhibitors, it’s important to consider which category to enter. The hot peppers category is a longtime popular choice for exhibitors because peppers are easy to grow in North Carolina. To compensate for the influx of entries, the department has created more restrictions over the years to ease the job of the judges.
Blazich said the unusual vegetable category is a fun one, and because it requires contestants to enter only one vegetable instead of multiples, there are many different entries. The category inspired Blazich to create a new Vegetable Petting Zoo in 2012. The zoo allowed fairgoers to touch hundred-pound watermelons and pumpkins and proved to be a popular addition.
You know you can enter it, but how on earth do you win? These are the three essentials judges are looking for.
1. Uniformity. This is the most important; your peppers (stems included) must be identical in shape, size and color.
- TIP: Remember, you’ll want to have a lot of peppers to choose from to pick the four most identical, so be sure to plant enough pepper plants.
2. Quality. Physically, the peppers should be without blemish and in pristine condition.
3. Ripeness. Each pepper must be perfectly ripe.
Blazich gives helpful instructions for growing good vegetables, regardless of the season and reason you’re growing.
- TIP: Pay attention to the soil you use, which should be chosen according to weather conditions. For example, use moisture-control soil only when you’re experiencing a drought. You can also mix soils and composts together to create something more catered to the weather in your area.
Step 2: Time it out. This is essential for growers hoping to bring home a blue ribbon from the fair. Blazich suggests giving yourself an extra week before the vegetables are due, and time it backwards from then as to when you should start growing.
- TIP: Start planting now. Beginning July 15, the day length is shorter, which is key for growing vegetables ripe without flowering. Vegetables are very sensitive to day length, and even the slightest change can make all the difference.
Step 3: Location, location, location. When starting with seeds, plant in a pot that can be easily relocated to get more rainfall, more sunlight or less hot air. If you later choose to plant them in the ground, make sure they are in a good location with maximum sunlight.
- TIP: Go for the front yard if you have to for the best sunlight. You can dress up planters with flowers to keep your yard looking good and your homeowner’s association happy.
Step 4: Be strategic. When planting in the ground, intercropping is a strategic way to ward off critters. Avoid planting in clumps where your tomatoes are in one bunch, peppers in another; to bugs, this is an invitation to an all you can eat buffet. Avoiding damage from animals is easy with the help of a floating row cover, which is laid directly on top of the plants. Water, sunlight and air can still pass through the open weave, while unwanted pests are turned away.
No matter what kind of green thumb you have, Blazich reminds us that horticulture is for everyone.
“Anyone can do this; you can do this, just use your common sense,” she said. “And the best part is, there’s a check behind every ribbon.”