Want to grow champion vegetables? Jodi Torpey, a prize-winning vegetable gardener and Master Gardener in Denver, CO, shares secrets to success in her new book, Blue Ribbon Vegetable Gardening. She also explains how to choose the right varieties, figure out planting and harvesting dates, and how to transport your beauties to the big show. Plus she offers insight into what judges look for.
Why did you write this book?
I couldn’t find another book written in the last 100 years about how to grow perfect produce to take to a competition. Since I was a kid, I’d always wanted to win a blue ribbon at the fair. It took a lot of years, but after becoming a Master Gardener, I took a few entries to the Arapahoe County Fair, and it was so much fun winning my first blue ribbons for my cherry tomatoes, mariachi hot peppers and sweet basil.
Do you have to be a Master Gardener to produce winning veggies?
No! There’s not a gardener out there that hasn’t made mistakes. The best teacher is experience. You don’t know what’s not going to work until you try something and have a failure.
What do novice gardeners need to know?
You have to think way in advance to make sure you’re going to have the right amount of vegetables in their pitch-perfect condition at fair time. You can always, as I did that first year, look in your garden and see what’s ready that might win. The competition does heat up. It depends what part of the country you’re in, the growing environment and the culture. In some places, like the Iowa State Fair, they have hundreds of categories and hundreds of competitors.
You must’ve had some fun researching the book.
I went to a lot of giant pumpkin contests, and to the Alaska State Fair, where they have the giant cabbage-growing contest. The 12 people that I interviewed for the book are either experts in growing or in taking their vegetables to competition.
Can you share some tips?
Spend some time amending your soil with organic matter like compost or composted manure, and give your plants a really good start. Find the varieties that best match the conditions in your area. For example, here in Colorado, we have a fairly short season, so it doesn’t pay to plant long-season heirloom tomatoes that take 90 or 100 days, because we might not have that many good growing days.
Thanks to plant breeders and seed companies, there are more improved varieties introduced every year that are more heat- or drought-resistant, and that produce better and bigger fruit.
How many ribbons have you won?
At least a dozen, but that’s hardly anything compared to one of the growers in my book: he wins over 100 every year, and he enters 130 categories and wins for practically everything! In 2012, my green ‘butt tomatoes’ won Best Mutation in the Novelty category. I called my exhibit, ‘How I got a little behind in my gardening’.
All photos ‘Courtesy of Jodi Torpey, WesternGardeners.com’