Winning Blue Ribbons
Donald S. Kellam, Jr.
Charlotte, North Carolina
Reprinted from the "Rosebay", Massachusetts Chapter publication, 1986
The purpose of this article is not to extol the merits of either rhododendrons or azaleas, nor to educate the reader in the culture of this excellent group of plants. It is certainly not intended that this be a lesson in producing a superb garden, or even healthy, vigorous plants within that garden. Rather the purpose here is to share some hints which may enable the reader to enter a rhododendron and azalea flower show and win enough blue ribbons to assure that he will capture the Grand Sweepstakes Cup, the Gold Medal or whatever recognition is given for the grand prize winner. Having a beautiful garden and having fine, healthy plants will aid in this quest, but this is not absolutely necessary.
George Beasley once told me a story of his corn farming days. In a year when his corn crop was the worst he could ever remember, a county agricultural agent asked for permission to enter George's corn in a show. He was told that certainly he could, but it would be a mistake, since the crop was so poor. The man searched the whole field for ears of corn he liked, and much to George's amazement, won a blue ribbon. George told the story to emphasize that the picking was as important, or almost as important, as the growing. This is as true in rhododendrons as in corn.
So, to win the grand award, the first requisite is to have as large a collection of plants as possible from which to choose potential winners. Having many varieties to select from ensures that something will be in bloom on the show day. Having many flower trusses on each plant prevents the grower from having to choose between a truss with a flower spent and one with weevil chewed leaves. Of course, to have good flowers the plants must be healthy, properly planted, fertilized, and located in just the right amount of shade or sun.
After proper planting and maintenance, the next step toward winning the show takes place the spring before the show, immediately after blooming season. When new foliage appears, for a while it is very susceptible to the inroads of chewing bugs. In Charlotte, North Carolina, these are primarily weevils and caterpillars. The damaged leaf is a turn-off for most judges, and while one such leaf can be removed without penalty, more than that gives your competitor a big boost. So, rid yourself of such critters. Spray with insecticides or hand pick them at night when these predators do their dirty work.
The leaves soon toughen up enough to be immune to these attacks. Then all you need worry about are summer hailstorms, falling branches, and the occasional pine needle which will hole a leaf. Judges generally aren't as tough on these defects as they are on bug damage, but if it comes to comparing a perfect truss to one with leaf damage, you're out of luck.
Another aid to winning is the thorough deadheading of flowers. This stimulates growth and bloom the next year, and more importantly, reduces the ravages of petal blight. Ovulinia, the fungus which causes petal blight, winters over as a spore, (more precisely a sclerotia), harbored in the spent flowers on the ground. I carefully dispose of this debris in plastic bags deposited in the garbage.
So a good portion of preparing a winning flower truss or spray is done the previous year. Show rules do not allow wintering plants in a greenhouse, but protection by burlap fencing or by covering the plant with evergreen boughs is permissible.
As the day of the show nears, your walks around the garden should include an estimation of what will be in bloom and at its peak at show time. Little can be done to make a rhododendron bloom early, but trusses cut at peak of bloom and kept in a refrigerator or cooler up to a week have won "best in show". Ultimately the time to pick and choose arrives and decisions are made which separate the winners from the pack.
While everyone has his preferred time to cut trusses and many do extremely well selecting their favorites on the morning of the show, my preference is the evening before the show. This allows time for leisurely decisions as to which trusses look best, are largest, have perfect foliage, no spent flowers, and few unopened buds.
Most show rules permit one or two unopened buds with no penalty. If the truss you have chosen has more than that, it can often be pushed to open overnight by placing the stem in warm water. I have old wooden Coca Cola cases into which I fit six or seven Coke bottles filled with water. I have experimented with various additives to the water, including carbonated soft drinks and crushed aspirin or Tylenol tablets, but have concluded that these additives make little difference.
I try to pick trusses with upright stems of sufficient length so that the truss will stand erect and will not fall out of the bottle. A wad of cotton or paper towel jammed in the neck of the bottle may help, for a truss which looks at the judge sidewise rather than straight on will never win a blue ribbon. Avoid the full large truss that is the product of a double or triple bud. While these are legal in exhibiting deciduous azaleas and small leafed lepidote rhododendrons, they are cause for disqualification of large leafed elepidotes.
Obtain and study a copy of the show classification, and enter as many classes as you can. As you choose trusses and sprays, mark off each class as you fill it. If this is neglected, you may discover that you have cut thirty specimens, all in only seven or eight classes and competing with each other.
Although your strong suit may be hybrid rhododendrons, take along species, deciduous and evergreen azaleas, for they might yield unexpected ribbons. In our southeastern shows these are often neglected by entrants, but the points won by a spray of azaleas are as valuable as those given for a Dexter hybrid.
The judges will have fewer yellows and oranges to evaluate than pinks and reds, so a slightly imperfect yellow hybrid has a better chance to win a ribbon than a better pink or red bloom.
If you can't choose between two trusses of the same variety, cut them both, and re-evaluate them in the morning before departing for the show. Leave the second best at home, since entering two trusses of a single name clone is never permitted.
The beautification of each individual truss is the next important step in your preparations. Carefully remove bud scales and dead pips with tweezers and wash each leaf with soft, wet paper towels. After all, the foliage has been out in the weather for a year catching all kinds of droppings from trees and birds. Here one must not go too far in his or her enthusiasm, for it is illegal to polish leaves or wax with oil, or to trim the leaves to hide a weevil's meal.
It is worthwhile to split the stem of the truss if it's large enough, so that more water will be available to the flowers. Amazingly, an inch or more of water may be absorbed by a single truss overnight. This water should be replaced, for a flower truss will wilt rapidly when the water no longer reaches the stem.
I keep my flowers on a porch overnight, protected from wind and rain. By morning some trusses may have dropped too many flowers, wilted, or developed a spot of petal blight. These should be discarded.
If possible, obtain entry cards prior to the show. They should be filled out at home to avoid the confusion that always exists as a show is set up. Fill them out with pencil or permanent ink, since the cards often get wet on the display table.
On To The Show
The entries are now ready to go to the contest, and careful transportation is important. Compact cars are impossible to use as conveyances for half a dozen Coke boxes filled with flowers, so I borrow a friend's van or station wagon. Long trips and sunny, hot weather present unique problems. If you stop for breakfast, park in shade and open the windows for ventilation. If you can't find shade, it's better to go without a meal.
On arrival at the contest site, the flowers must be carried in and arranged on the display table according to their classification or given to the classification committee. You must try to do this yourself rather than accept help from bystanders. Only an experienced exhibitor can know how little trauma it takes to transform a winner into a poor also-ran, or how sternly the judges will frown on a truss that is mislabeled or classified incorrectly. If you must accept help, get it from your fellow exhibitors and then help them with the same care and reverence for their blossoms you covet for your own.
Many flower shows are held in shopping malls, where the general public is anxious to view the show even before the judging. When security is lax, you may help the officials of the show in discouraging spectators from entering the display area, for they may lift the trusses out of their bottles, or move the bottles away from their registration cards.
Finally the judging begins, and it's all out of your hands. As the judges come down the table and you notice that your best truss has fallen out of its bottle, relax. Have a cup of coffee with your fellow exhibitors who are also nervous; better yet, don't watch. Remember that the reason for having these exhibitions is to enjoy and develop interest in rhododendrons. Who wins is not all important. Another must: never criticize the judges!
Some final words for the beginner: study the show after it's judged. Look at the winners and try to imagine why the judges picked each winning truss.
Volunteer to be a judge yourself; there's no better method to learn what experienced judges look for than to be part of the committee that does the judging. Don't be shy, and don't worry about looking foolish. Even the most mature judge felt the same insecurity when judging his first show.
Above all, enter and compete. You do service to the genus Rhododendron and you get a chance to experience the unique thrill that comes when something plucked from your own garden wins recognition. Best of luck!