September 1, 2018 10:01:15 PM
In competition gardening, it's only partly what you know or your skills that gets the prize. It's also a willingness to jump through hoops.
Doesn't matter whether you're seeking blue ribbons at flower shows, a neighborhood Yard of the Month placard, or any other public accolades for your green thumbiness. The path to acclaim is to be able to fathom and follow inane rules, and deliver precisely what judges are expecting.
And it's the same no matter what you are striving recognition for, high or low. I'm a judge in flower shows of foliage, fruits and vegetables, looking for uniformity and freedom of defects, as well as at scarecrow festivals where the most bizarre of the lot is celebrated highest.
In fact, Japanese horticulturists often practice koten engei in which closely related plants are given points according to how many differences they have from one another, treasuring most those with unusual combinations of mutated, twisted, spotted and otherwise unlikely traits. Unlike Miss America type events which reward those that hew the closest to widely accepted norms, in koten engei the most uniquely peculiar unique gets the prize.
My appreciation for these diverse views of perfection has been honed from lessons learned from two vastly different women, both garden club judges. One, my grandmother Louise, won folders full of blue ribbons from her floral arrangements, African violets and daylilies. She shared tips with me on grooming plants and flowers for presentation, from selecting the best specimen to carefully positioning leaves and petals using a small brush to dust everything, and down to wiping pots clean.
However, I once got second place for a daylily flower arrangement because it had just one big, bold daylily flower. The judges pointed out the very first rule in the show manual was "daylilies must predominate." No matter that I nailed the design elements; I'd missed the show's main point of highlighting daylilies.
Because of that experience, for years I kept a favorite bumper sticker on my truck that I'd found at a gourd society show, which boldly proclaimed "Gourds Must Predominate." It was an esoteric head scratcher to folks who didn't understand the context.
On the other hand, my great-grandmother Pearl, a 1930s charter member and keen horticultural chair of her garden club, preferred her herb and wildflower lectures and how-to demonstrations over entering shows. It was she who assured me that to gain public acclaim you have to toe the line of others.
Pearl's disdain for fussy conventions encouraged me to get over worrying entirely about popular opinion while puttering around and doing my own thing in my private garden. It's what fences are for.
However, it remains that if you want a shot at lawn of the month it takes more than paying close attention to mowing, edging and weeding; you gotta also check out what judges think. See what nearby recent winners have going on besides just the perfect lawn, like pruned shrubs and mulched flower beds.
And it's a social gamble. When a highly regarded therapist friend showed me the "runner-up" award sign stuck into his lawn by neighborhood wags, he grimaced a bit when I asked how it made him feel, being singled out publicly for being just so-so.
He rationalized, correctly, that it acknowledged he at least cared enough to be a good-natured part of the neighborhood fabric.
Fair enough. Bottom line is, gardening competitions of all sorts bring like-minded people together with common purpose to show their skills and find opportunities to rub shoulders and learn from one another.
But like with scarecrows, to come out on top you gotta have brains.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the "Gestalt Gardener" on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to [email protected]