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Setting the stage for annual show time

A giant sunflower. Picture by Tom Pattinson.
A giant sunflower. Picture by Tom Pattinson.

I’m pleased to meet anyone who claims to be “into gardening”, but immediately wonder which aspect.

Vegetable growing is understandably popular, as are front garden ornamental displays, but cultivating single species, say orchids, can also bring a sense of fulfilment.

My gardening interests are diverse, but the competitive element, from a show organiser and judge’s point of view, is one that has given so much satisfaction.

This area envelops such a diversity of situations. For instance, the organisation of flower shows involves a lot more than deciding where to display vases of blooms. It’s like a military operation. No sooner is one annual show over than organisers start planning the next.

The judging of flower, vegetable and fruit exhibits is just as interesting, always serious, occasionally humorous. Respect is shown to each entry, and feedback given when requested. You have to allow for the exhibitor’s approach: “Why were my potatoes third-placed rather than second?”

The judging of villages, towns and cities calls for a slightly different approach, but in essence is similar; the voluntary efforts across the age demographic of a community are being assessed.

Thankfully, ‘bloom’ committees, encouraged by Northumbria in Bloom, engage with schools and youth organisations. For example, Alnwick in Bloom, in partnership with the Northumberland Gazette, has just launched its annual Tallest Sunflower competition.

Free packets of the giant variety Giraffe can be picked up at the library, Northumbria Pets, The Wool Shop, Kiddies Kabin and Wagonway Road Post Office. Either sow into pots indoors now and transfer to the garden in mid-May, or sow outdoors in April.

Given the colossal value of prizes at pub and club onion and leek shows, which I’ve judged from the late 60s until recently, it’s not surprising that a little tension between exhibitors can creep in. But there has always been humour.

As a fellow judge and I took a first glance at some big exhibition onions, one distant pair stood out. Leave them for now, we reasoned, see if there’s anything to beat them. Later, close inspection revealed these large, high-necked, beautifully ripened twins to be two inflated balloons covered in papier mache and painted golden brown. A master craftsman had been at work.

Placed on our guard, we ignored the outstanding nine pods of identical peas because fingerprints littered the bloom on each. Real exhibitors don’t leave handling marks on grapes, cabbages and pea pods.The pods had been opened, refilled with marbles and glued together.

The competitive element extends to who can grow the longest, tallest, biggest. Such classes are occasionally found in local shows, such as heaviest vegetable marrow or heaviest onion, but the real eye-openers are seen at a national level, Harrogate Autumn Show for example.