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Blue-ribbon Bounty | Summer 2011 Out Here Magazine

Growing ribbon-worthy vegetables requires nothing more than hard work, says Jennifer Klindt, who's known in Iowa for her award-winning vegetables.

Fair judge offers tips for growing award-winning vegetables

By Hannah Wolfson
Photography by Jennifer Klindt

Sometimes, it all starts with a simple suggestion: "You should show those beautiful vegetables at the state fair."

But what does it really take to grow and exhibit winning vegetables? Lots of planning and hard work, says Jennifer Klindt, the premier 4-H exhibitor at last year's Iowa State Fair.

"It's just about the work you put into it," she says, remembering having to pull weeds in the summer sun, even when she didn't feel like it. "There's really no trick to it."

But there are some tips that can help, says Joe Yedlik, an extension director in Jones County, Iowa, who works with 4-H exhibitors and judges vegetables in the state fair.

The work begins in winter, when competitors pore over seed catalogs to make sure they're selecting the right varieties. Yedlik suggests talking to a master gardener or extension agent, about what does best in your area. And consider new categories gaining popularity, such as hot peppers and herbs.

But the most important rule is to grow what you like, as long as the timing is right.

"You've got to look at the growing period of these crops to make sure they're ripe and ready to harvest at the time you're going to exhibit them," Yedlik says. "The bottom line is, you want that particular product to look like it's ready to be consumed. It should be ready to eat."

Depending on when your county fair will be held, that can mean putting onions in the ground a little earlier than normal, starting pumpkins indoors, or staggering planting of fast-growing vegetables to make sure some will be ready at the right time.

Immature produce isn't the only challenge for exhibitors, Yedlik says. Unless you want to enter the novelty "jumbo" category, forget about showing that overgrown foot-long zucchini. Squash, cucumbers, potatoes and other produce should instead be the right size to eat.

As a state-fair judge, Yedlik has awarded ribbons to some of the finest examples of homegrown vegetables. He offers these tips to help you grow the best produce that just might bring home a blue ribbon:

  • Cucumbers: Grow on a trellis and turn periodically so all sides get equal sun exposure.
  • Pumpkins: Water well to keep heavy. Place a board under ripening fruit so it doesn't rot from the damp soil.
  • Potatoes: Hill soil over the spuds to keep them from turning green. To clean, soak in water for an hour, then wipe with a soft cloth or ear swab.
  • Cauliflower: Wrap leaves around the head and tie with soft cloth to keep the florets white.
  • Beans: Water well the day before harvest so pods will be plump and juicy.
  • Carrots: Thin well so they grow straight. Once roots develop, hill soil to keep upper part from turning green or purple.

Hannah Wolfson lives in Birmingham, Ala., where she wishes she had room for more than one watermelon in her garden.