Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.
What wacky things a gardener will do if bitten by the competitive bug. You might have one in your neighborhood – they’re those who hoist the first ripe tomato aloft, lifting it high enough to be seen above the six-foot privacy fence, proclaiming loudly “Honey, we’ll be enjoying tomatoes tonight!”
Those of us on the other side of the fence can only sullenly stare in envy, alternately wondering how they did that and vowing to win next year. Deals with the devil are made, and gardeners can quickly find themselves so wrapped up in the competition they lose sight of common sense, or even sanity.
Take Kata Schmidt, a devoted vegetable gardener and Colorado Master Gardener inPueblo. Eager to be the first in her neighborhood to harvest ripe tomatoes, she starts her 30 seedlings in January, then trundles them in and out of her home daily to protect them from frost. That twice-daily tomato migration begins in February, a time when most of us are dreaming over catalogs and watching the snow fly.
But the task pays off for Kata, who begins plucking delicious love apples around Memorial Day, when most tomatoes are barely in the ground. But it isn’t just the glory of the first delectable fruit that drives her, or the nutritious, homegrown food; she has her eye on the coveted title of Tomato Lady in her community, and goes after it.
“There’s a woman nearby who likes to brag that she gets hers by the Fourth of July, but I so have her beat,” says Kata, adding that it’s fun to be so early in harvesting.
Now that it’s August, it’s crunch time for the most competitive in our neighborhoods, when County Fairs play on this obsession by pitting gardeners against one another in good-natured – and sometimes not so good natured – competition. Perfection is measured in the straightness of beans, the uniformity of peppers, or the weight of cabbage. And when it comes to pumpkins, size matters.
Blemished produce is no use in the county fair, so when the monsoons arrive, tossing hail and tree limbs, gardeners go to great lengths to protect their prized plants. Canopies, crates, and other coverings spring up almost as often as frost blankets, tossed on in the middle of the deluge once the hail becomes real.
Crazed gardeners measure the progress of overgrown zucchini, measuring its length and girth daily to see if they’ll triumph in the giant zucchini contests. Alison and Gil O’Connor of Windsor are going after that prize, measuring their squash next to the size of their beagle, Willow.
If you’re planning to enter your crops for a chance at the blue ribbon, here are a few tips for selecting the prize winners from your plants:
Eggplant should be shiny, uniformly deep in color with a bright green cap. Avoid dull color, green tinge or brown discolorations, which are all signs of bitter or old fruit.
Sweet corn ears need to be filled to the tip with tightly packed, plump kernels, bursting with milky juice if lightly pressed. The silk should be a dark brown. Leave those ears with dry brown husks and indentations on the kernels at home; they’re old, and the sugars have turned to starch.
Cantaloupes need to have a well defined grey-yellow netting over tan skin. Pick up the cantaloupe and shake it – the seeds will rattle when ripe, and gently press the blossom end to see if it gives slightly to pressure. These are both signs of a perfectly ripe cantaloupe. Judges will frown on spongy, wrinkled or moldy rinds.
Sweet peppers should have deep, rich color that feel heavy for their size. Unless you’re growing some of the Italian bull’s horn types, avoid those with thin walls that give when pressed. Enter the slender bull’s horns varieties that are wrinkle-free and sleek.
Green beans are best when picked young, cooled quickly and brought to the fair as soon after harvest as possible. Make sure the beans are slim, the seeds small and not swelling. Look for pods less than one quarter to one eighth inch around with bright color and an audible snap when broken.