On this occasion I am not writing about growing fruit but asking you the following question – have you ever taken part in your allotment show or local horticultural society show? If you haven’t I am hoping that during the next few paragraphs I am going to be able to persuade you to have a try and at the same time I will suggest a few tips on how to best show off your produce and win a first prize. I’m writing this both as a regular exhibitor and judge.
Exhibiting is not just about winning prizes – OK, I know that this could be an ultimate aim – but generally speaking it is all about putting your best produce on the showbench, showing the general public just what can be grown and how it can be grown at its best and perhaps at the same time winning the odd bit of prize money.
So why exhibit at a show? Well the origins of exhibiting garden produce are found in the age of the Victorian Head Gardeners who were determined to show to the public how good they were and to other Head Gardeners that they were the best. The result was a feast of horticultural produce which the public could only gasp at in amazement! However, what it did was to show just what could be grown and as a result many gardeners started developing similar aspirations. Although it was not until the twentieth century that the ordinary gardener started to seriously emulate their Victorian predecessors, they did it with great gusto and although gardening has changed directions a myriad of times since, there is still a great display of horticultural produce at certain times of the year all over the country. I am pleased to observe that after a lull in enthusiasm in exhibiting over perhaps the last fifteen years or so there has been an upsurge in interest and many younger allotmenteers and gardeners are becoming involved in exhibiting and having fun.
And yes I do mean fun! There is always an amazing camaraderie between exhibitors and this, in my opinion, is at its best at the allotment shows. I firmly believe that the majority of allotmenteers cannot wait to prove that what they have said about their produce is actually true having put up with insults over the growing year! Other gardeners who belong to horticultural societies, garden clubs etc. have an equal amount of fun and this is often best observed as each exhibitor proudly brings their produce to the show. To me the show is the culmination of the growing season and that is why I find it such an evocative time.
I suppose it is the late summer or autumn show that is my favourite as it is then that growers exhibit their fruit and vegetables – each of them resembling mini Harvest Festivals! These are the shows where produce fit for the table or even better is carefully displayed along with the jams and wines often made from the same stock! And it is these shows that are probably of most interest to the readers of this blog as what better place than to show just what can be grown in the kitchen garden!
To me the best thing about the local shows is that for fruit in particular everyone has an equal chance of winning as everyone is growing in the same conditions – there are no real specialist growing techniques for fruit unlike those used by some chrysanthemum, dahlia, vegetable growers etc.
So having persuaded you to enter a show what do you do? Well before you do anything you need to obtain the show schedule for the show you are going to enter. Although this may seem a grand name do not be put off, as it merely gives a list of all the classes in the show and explains some of the rules that you need to follow. You should also be aware that the Royal Horticultural Society produce a booklet called the Horticultural Show Handbook and this contains specific rules that exhibitors need to follow. Now I do not wish to put you off exhibiting at the earliest of stages so unless you are taking this whole thing very seriously and wish to read this Handbook from cover to cover, I would suggest that you do not read it until you have a show or two under your belt.
As long as you read the show schedule correctly and follow what it says you cannot really go wrong so long as you consider and always remember the following when selecting your fruit:
Condition – the fruit that you exhibit should in a good condition and ripe but certainly not overripe. However, apples, pears and gooseberries may be exhibited unripe. Eliminate, if possible, any fruit that has disease or pest damage. Never polish your fruit to make it look better and try and preserve the “bloom” that you find on a number of fruits e.g. plums.
Size – the fruit must be of good size for its particular variety. For dessert apples the judges will be looking for a size of around 7.5cm (3in) although some varieties such as Pitmaston Pineapple and Winston are inherently small and Jonagold and Jupiter are inherently large.
Colour – the fruit colour should be characteristic of the variety e.g. only select red specimens of the apple Discovery as it is a red apple (although when fruits are hidden under leaves they tend to remain green).
Uniformity – ensure that all of the fruit specimens that you have entered in a single exhibit are uniform in size, shape and colour i.e. if a class calls for four specimens of a dessert apple you must do your best to find a set that are as similar as possible in size, shape and colour.
One Variety – unless the show schedule states otherwise all of the fruit that you show in one single exhibit must be of one variety.
And when it comes to the day of the show:
Read the show schedule carefully before going to the show and make a note of the quantities required for each class that you are going to enter.
When packing your fruit for transport to the show make sure that it is secure because I can assure you that accidents do happen! Never carry too much into the show at any one time – it is very easy to drop a tray of fruit. I know because I have done it!
Allow plenty of time for traveling to the show and for staging your exhibit, as shortage of time can lead to carelessness and mistakes. Always treat your fruit very carefully indeed as it is very easy to lose bloom, cause fingernail or other damage.
Make sure that the fruit you stage is the best quality that you can manage, uniform in all respects and meets the numerical requirements. Never enter fruit that is becoming overripe because it will quickly deteriorate and probably be a mess when the judge gets to it!
When displaying your fruit lay it out carefully and present it in a way to catch the judge’s eye; do not just haphazardly lay fruit out.
Apples should be exhibited stalk down and in classes where five or more are required lay one fruit on top of the pile. Pears are best exhibited on their sides with one on top in classes of five or more. Soft fruit should be carefully laid out but please, please not on a few leaves!
When staging your exhibit, it is inevitable that you will find one specimen that is a little larger or smaller than the rest. Hide it as best you can and leave the judge to find it by not placing it in a prominent position e.g. on top!
Never be put off by what other exhibitors have entered – you never know just what is lurking in the unexposed parts of the fruit! That is why judges will always examine all exhibits most carefully! When you have finished staging check each of your entries very carefully to make sure that you have exhibited the right quantity and that you are happy with the arrangement. Do not fiddle with anything once you are satisfied. It is very easy to damage fruit by too much handling.
Never be afraid to ask other exhibitors for help or advice – they are always a very friendly bunch and in my experience I have never come across an exhibitor who will ignore such requests.
Now go home, have a glass of wine and forget about everything until the show opens to the public!
So have a go at exhibiting fruit at your local show – these shows are uniquely British and will only survive if we all contribute to their success. Shows are not difficult to enter, they are the friendliest of places and you never know but you might actually find that you enjoy the show scene as much as growing the produce.
17th August 2016
Gerry is an experienced amateur fruit grower who is Chairman of the RHS Fruit Group, a member of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Fruit, Vegetable and Herb Committee and also their Fruit Trials Panel. Gerry judges fruit nationally for the Royal Horticultural Society and is also a qualified National Vegetable Society judge.