Get a leg up on the competition and learn what judges look for in prizewinning produce with this excerpt from Blue Ribbon Vegetable Gardening.
The judging process is as varied as each event. At some fairs judging is closed, but other competitions invite contestants and the general public to stick around to watch and learn. The most helpful process, from a competitor’s point of view, is an open one in which judges provide feedback to justify their choices and give advice for improving entries in the future.
Most fairs use the American System of judging for vegetable competitions. In the American System, judges rate each exhibit by comparing it to the other exhibits. Then each is ranked first, second, or third, with one ribbon color for each placing.
Most horticulture contests have qualified and experienced judges who are either growers or industry professionals. Smaller contests may recruit fellow gardeners willing to volunteer their time. Whether judges are amateur or professional, their decision is final.
What Judges Look For
For the majority of contests following the American System, judges will be looking for the characteristics that make one entry stand out from the others. They’ll be searching for the best set of perfect vegetables they’ve ever seen. For each entry, they’ll be checking for the following:
- Correct number of specimens
- Uniformity in shape, color, and texture
- Premium quality on the outside and inside
- No blemishes or damage
- Stems present or absent, as specified
- True to type (specimen has all the characteristics of the variety or cultivar it claims to be)
To a certain degree, size matters, too. A plate of large tomatillos will probably top an entry that’s just as perfect, but smaller. Unless you’re entering a jumbo vegetable competition, though, avoid showing exceptionally enormous specimens; excessive size can signal they’re overripe and past their prime.
The Results Are In
The show book should explain the timing of the awards ceremony and how winners claim their ribbons (and entries) when the fair ends. If you enjoyed participating and plan to enter again, write a few notes of what worked well for you and what you’d like to change for the next gardening season. Maybe it’s the cultivars you plant, the classes you’d like to enter, or other ideas for creating a more successful experience.
At some fairs you may get back the form that the judges used to rate your entries. At one country fair I received a comment card for each entry, which included a list of 12 categories and a place for the judges’ comments. The comments I received for my blue-ribbon basil were “Fairly uniform, large leaves, leaf quality is great! Taste is good!” Another country fair used a judging sheet that assigned points for quality, color, true to species, condition, and something called “the x factor.” On that sheet I saw the judge’s comments on my second-place ‘Green Tiger’ zucchini: “Beautiful color and perfect size, 7″ on the nose! Nice mild flavor and seeds aren’t overdeveloped. x factor: Neat variety and congrats on picking at the perfect time.” But there was room for improvement on my ‘Suribachi’ jalapeño pepper entry: “Very interesting variety; a little bit of decay in the seeds.” My disappointment was tempered by winning a green ribbon for my description explaining how I grew these peppers organically.
Your own notes, plus comments from the judges, can improve your chances for ribbons, premiums, and prizes the next time around. It’s also a good idea to take a look at the entries that took the top prizes. You might want to give those varieties a go next year.