Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Sept. 17, 2017 “Fair gives lesson about best oflowers to grow locally.”
By Barb Gorges
I wasn’t thinking of our county fair being a learning opportunity until I overheard one woman visiting the floriculture department say to another, “You should try that in your garden.”
I realized then that the open class entries (all the entries that are not 4-H or FFA) could tell me a lot about what Laramie County gardeners grow, and grow well, at least at the beginning of August.
Checking the fair results at http://www.laramiecountyfair.com, in horticulture (fruits and vegetables), there were only 81 entries, indicating a growing season with a slow, cold start. However, for floriculture [starting on page 148], there were many more entries: perennial flowers (146), annual flowers (84), culinary herbs (64). The other categories, flower arrangements, dish gardens and potted plants, had a total of 55.
Why wouldn’t you plant perennials, the most popular category, in the first place? They take so little work once established. And once you’ve planted a perennial, why wouldn’t you snip three identical flowers the first week in August, place them in a clear glass jar, carry them to the fair and hope for a blue ribbon and $6 premium?
I’ve entered numerous quilts in fairs over the last 35 years (one to two hundred hours or more of work for a chance at the same $6 premium) and understand quilt judging, but I wasn’t sure what floriculture judges were looking for.
The fair book will tell you a little bit, but the 2017 edition is no longer available and the 2018 edition won’t be on the website until next spring. You can contact the Floriculture Superintendent, Chris Wright, through the fair office, 307-633-4670, if you have questions now.
Unlike other competitive endeavors, fair judges give out as many blue ribbons in any class as they feel are warranted. The entries are judged by how well they represent the class. For instance, all seven pansy entries received blue ribbons. However, all the Monarda (beebalm) entries received red ribbons and only $4 premiums.
I chatted with one of the two floriculture judges afterwards. Chris Hilgert, Wyoming Master Gardener coordinator and Extension horticulture specialist, explained he thought all the beebalm was a little past its prime.
Beebalm flower heads are made up of tiny florets that bloom in groups, one concentric ring at a time. Mine had already been in bloom five weeks. But pansies have no florets, just five petals per flower. Mine have been putting out fresh flowers nearly every day since they started blooming in April.
Hilgert has been judging several fairs a year for the last 14 years. He looks for entries that are healthy—no sign of disease or pests. You can pinch off bad leaves, but you can’t remove very many bad flower petals without ruining a bloom.
The containers don’t matter, Hilgert said, though he prefers that they be a size matching the stem length. He’d rather not fish flowers out of the water when they fall into too tall vases. Our fair’s rules call for clear glass or plastic containers and it doesn’t matter to Hilgert whether they are vases or just jars and bottles.
When a class description asks for three stems, or three blooms, the three need to be as uniform as possible: same size flowers, same length stem, and flowers at the same stage of bloom. This year I had a bumper crop of Rudbeckia (gloriosa daisy or black-eyed susan), but in over 100 blooms, only three were identical, and luckily, were fresh enough to last the whole week of the fair.
Avoiding wilting, another of Hilgert’s benchmarks, was easy this year—it was a cool, rainy day when we brought our entries to the Exhibition Hall. However, during hot weather, the fair’s rules stating that all open class entries must be turned in between noon and 8 p.m., but not judged until the next morning, doesn’t work well for the tender plants. And it is another day before the public can view them. Volunteers keep the containers of flowers and the potted plants watered during fair week.
There is a simple strategy for entering floriculture at our fair. Before the entry deadline at the end of June, put in online for every class for which you have something planted. There is no entry fee. No one can predict what will look best the beginning of August when the flowers need to be picked. While seven people had great Shasta daisy entries this year, mine were already finished blooming. Of the 35 classes I put in for, I only brought 14 entries. I didn’t even have hail damage this year. It was just a matter of bloom timing.
There is a competitive aspect to the Floriculture department—those other awards that give you bragging rights: Superior, Best of Show, Reserve Champion and Champion. Those are the purple ribbons, some with fancy rosettes, that transcend the classes.
This year gardeners were rewarded with them for an exceptional hybrid tea rose, a sunflower, a salpiglossis, two mints, three potted plants and a fairy garden. A truly wonderful flowering tuberous begonia, entered by one of my neighbors, Jean Profaizer, was the champion.
Whether you ever intend to enter the fair and make some “seed money,” it is worth reading the Floriculture results to see what can bloom in Cheyenne in late summer. I counted over 20 kinds of culinary herbs (although these don’t need to be in bloom), 16 kinds of annuals and 30 kinds of perennials. The most popular, if you put all four classes of it together (white, yellow, pink and other), was yarrow, with 25 entries. It happens to be an easy perennial to grow, too.
Other late summer standbys are Echinacea (coneflower), Gaillardia (blanket flower), daylily, lilies, various roses, violets, and as previously mentioned, Rudbeckia.
Among the annuals are geranium, cosmos, bachelor buttons, snapdragon, sunflower, marigold, petunia and pansy (though my pansies sometimes come back, acting like short-lived perennials).
When you walk through the display of flowers at our fair, each vase or jarful with its entry tag that you see gives you more familiarity with local possibilities. If you are lucky, the gardener has added the variety name—it’s supposed to give them extra competition points.
With all that information, now is the perfect time to assess your garden, make plans and gather or order what you need for next season. Any end of the season sales on perennials at nurseries? How about seeds, both flower and vegetable? Although they are never seen at the fair, don’t forget spring-blooming bulbs. And think about planting flowering trees and shrubs.
The downside? You may have to dig a new bed to accommodate all your future flower plans. But the bees, birds, butterflies and bats thank you.