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SPRING TO IT 2001 | First Person

Many Seeds, but No Doubt

Family Teams Up to Grow Pumpkin, Winning Spirit for County Fair Contest

March 24, 2001|SANDRA ROBBIE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Sandra Robbie is the host/producer of "Small Hands Farm," a series of short garden segments that air on the PBS station KOCE in Huntington Beach

This year my family is throwing its hat into the ring--and its pumpkins and sunflowers too. My husband, Alec, our two children Chris, 10, and McKenna, 6, and I have decided to grow flowers and vegetables for competition at the Orange County Fair.

This will be our first fair competition, but my family's been gardening since we moved into our North Tustin fixer-upper eight years ago. That first summer, I remember watching my then-toddler son disappear into the crackling, tall weeds as we worked to clear a place for our first pumpkin patch.

I've tried to teach my children that gardening is about so much more than just growing plants. It's about dirt and bugs, planning and patience, working and playing. The garden teaches many things about the world around us and our place in it.

Though this is a competition, our family is focusing on the fun of participating in a community event. That said, we're going to do our best to grow the biggest ol' pumpkin in the whole county and there are certain strategies that can help.

I spoke with Jim Bailey, the Orange County Fair's Centennial Farm manager, who speaks with a kindly patience that comes from coaxing seeds and students for more than four decades. He said the key to winning is timing.

We need to plant something soon; judging takes place July 12, 18 and 24.

Since citrus takes five years to bear fruit, it's too late for us to compete in that category, but there's plenty of time to sprout seeds. We've decided to grow pumpkins, sunflowers, radishes and carrots--orange, purple and red ones. Yes, purple.

Though we're growing from seed, anyone can compete with store-bought seedlings, and that's not cheating at all.

Fair competition is open for fruit and vegetable crops from apple to zucchini.

Before we plant, it's important to read seed catalogs or packets to find out how many "days to maturity" are needed. Russian Mammoth sunflowers need 110 days, so we'll need to plant them about April 1, no later than April 15, to be ready for the last competition.

Because variations in weather and seeds can affect maturation time, it's a good idea to plant seeds from the same crop three or four days apart over a couple of weeks to increase our chances of peak performance for the fair.


Just like people, plants need to eat right to grow up healthy. We need to water properly and give our plants enough fertilizer or compost. And we need to check that our plants are healthy. That means daily weeding and controlling any bugs that might belly-up to our garden salad bar.

Small window boxes or big backyard gardens can yield winners if they have proper soil and sunny locations.

We also need to read up on secret strategies, such as the idea that pumpkins like milk. We tried that one year with a little leftover cereal milk on the seedlings each morning and ended up creating a monster pumpkin that took three adults to lift.

We'll be trying milk again this year.

There's no sleeping in on competition day. Registration is in-person only, between 7 and 9 a.m. Judging begins immediately after the close of registration and ribbons are awarded the same afternoon.

Some things the judges will look for are quality, color, maturity, and no blemishes or insect damage.

I've talked about the competition with my son and daughter, and we've decided that even if we don't grow the biggest or the best, chances are we'll grow something that qualifies as an entry for the most unusual shape.

Maybe it'll be a radish that resembles a rock star or a square squash. We can do that.

I really hope what we grow this year is a winning attitude. Let the games begin.


How Long Things Take

Days to maturity from seed:

Beans, 50-75 days

Beets, 49-60

Carrots, 68-72

Corn, 64-85

Cucumbers, 55-64

Eggplant, 55-70

Peanuts, 120

Pumpkin, 85-120

Radish, 21-35

Squash, 48-75

Tomato, 65-90

Turnips, 35

--Burpee Catalog

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