JARS v39n2 - Show Judging

Show Judging
Gordon D. Rowley
Berkshire, England

Reprinted with permission from The Garden, Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society.

"What am I looking for?" must be uppermost in a judge's mind as he confronts each class in a flower show. He sees plants, but he sees also containers, labels, soil and perhaps other accessories, all combining to reflect the grower's personality, taste and willingness to go the extra mile in ensuring good presentation. Whereas all would agree that "it's the plant that counts", one's heart goes out to an exhibitor who spares no effort to display his wares to perfection. Put another way, it is the grower who is really on trial; the exhibit is merely a projection of his abilities.
Even more subjective is the choice of plants. Some are naturally photogenic - "a good show plant", we say. Others, more a test of the grower's skill, lack eye-catching features. Subduing personal bias is difficult; five judges might come up with five different answers. This makes a case for appointing different judges each year, so that losers at one show may stand a better chance at the next.

The art of judging
The art of judging at a flower show is really only an extension of the skills we all exert in everyday life, often unconsciously and with minimal effort. Consider a choosy housewife confronted by a mound of grapefruits in a supermarket. In a very few seconds her hand wanders over them, gives one or two a squeeze and selects "the best in show". In those few seconds she has performed a complicated mental exercise balancing up characters such as size, texture, shape and ripeness (as judged by colour and absence of rotten patches. Note that all these characters are secondary to the real merit which lies inside and hidden from view: everything she sees and feels will be thrown away as useless. A misshapen, scabby or discoloured fruit may, on cutting open, offer the best value for contents. So it is with show judging, the main difference being that the housewife has less to lose if she makes a mistake, so can be more relaxed about it.
Show judges have something in common with music critics and those who seek to guide our tastes in film, theatre and the arts. There are few, if any, exact coordinates that could be fed into a computer to produce an infallible and repeatable answer. The best of judges will disagree, just as critics of the past have disagreed and evaluated artists of their day very differently from the way we do at present. And who is to say that future generations will not think differently? The most we can ask of a judge is that he commands respect by his experience and balanced thinking and represents the norm or happy medium in current opinions. Part of the training of novice judges must inevitably come by watching those more experienced at work. It also helps if they are themselves growers, collectors and exhibitors, and they will need to keep abreast of the times in knowing what the latest introductions and hybrids are.
Competitors often express the wish to hear the judge's views on the show as a whole and on their own exhibits, failed or laurel-crowned, in particular. It is too much to expect a judge to write an appraisal of every entry, but he should make the effort to leave a note (perhaps on the show card) of the reason for any disqualification or decision liable to be challenged later. If the show accompanies a meeting of the society, he may be invited to comment. It is best to give in gracefully; a judge who has done his work conscientiously need have no fear of facing his public. In his fervour to extol the virtues of the top winners, however, he should not forget a kind word for the losers, the novices and the have-a-go outsiders who made the effort to support the show and in no small way contributed to its success. The organizers and backroom helpers also deserve praise, and if he has any criticisms to offer, they can be ever-so-discreetly intermingled with the encomiums in hopes of improving standards the following year.

The science of judging
There are many different procedures in setting about selecting the best from a number of competition entries. Five of those most commonly adopted are described here, along with their applicability, advantages and disadvantages. In practice one acts instinctively and suits the approach to the special problems posed by each class.
(A) Grading from the top downwards. This applies in the simplest cases where the winner and runners up stand out as fairly obvious. All that remain can then be disregarded. Reality is rarely as simple as this, and usually only where the entry is very small.

Select winners first method
Fig. 1 Select the winners first, and remainder are automatically rejected

(B) Grading from the bottom upwards. Here the procedure is the reverse of (A) to suit cases where there is no obvious winner, but some entries are clearly more faulty than others. The principle is thus the "elimination of the unfit". By removing the defectors one by one the choice narrows down, and the winners must lie among the remainder.

Reject losers first
Fig. 2 Reject obvious losers first; this narrows down the choice of winners

(C) Matching to a standard. This involves arbitrarily selecting one entry from somewhere near the middle of the range and comparing it against each of the others in turn. If a small potted plant, it can be physically set beside each other entry to help concentrate one's thinking. A simple form of pointing (See (D)) can be used, grading superior entries one, two or more points above the sample. This rapidly reduces the number of contestants and focuses attention on the highest scores.

Compare each to a mid range entry
Fig. 3 Select one entry from about or above the middle of the range,
and grade all the others above or below it.
N.A.S. = Disqualified ("Not As Schedule")

(D) Pointing
Levels of goodness or badness can often be translated into figures on a scale that is arbitrarily decided or actually measured with ruler or calipers. The system is called pointing. It is at once the most accurate and most impartial means of making an assessment. Figures are coldly unemotional as compared with words like "passable" or "mediocre". They can be added or subjected to complex mathematical treatments to express fine shades of difference. Where competition is very close they provide the only way of separating the winners that can be scientifically justified. There is one great disadvantage: pointing takes time and work, and in the stressful conditions of show judging it would rarely be possible to apply it to every exhibit. Therefore one judges by eye as far as possible and resorts to pointing only when the entries are too numerous or the standard too uniform to allow an easy decision.
The principles underlying pointing need to be understood as much by the compilers of rules and schedules as by the judges who apply them. Some are essentially logical; others result from human foibles common to us all when we look at a string of numbers or try to sort complex mixtures of images into groups.

Points sytem
Size 3 3 4 5 2 4 3 3 2 3
Colour 2 4 2 2 2 2 2 3 4 4
Flowering 0 3 0 0 3 0 5 0 0 0
Condition 2 5 3 1 4 1 3 4 4 3
Total 7 15 9 8 11 7 13 10 10 10
First Third Second
Fig. 4 (D) Pointing     (5 Maximum)

How many points should one allow for each criterion judged? Five, or ten, or a hundred? The mind reacts differently in each case. Starting at the bottom end of the scale, a single point allows only two levels of marking, 0 and 1. The judge then immediately asks: do I take 0 as the norm and award 1 in cases of extra merit, or take 1 as the norm and deduct a point for any defaulters? If the answer is not obvious, he will have to resort to half a point for the norm, 0 for inferior and 1 for superior cases. Because half points are a nuisance when adding, it would have been better to allow two points as the minimum. Remember that, on average, the majority of entries will fall in the middle of the range, and this will be reflected in the spread of marks.
At the opposite extreme one faces different problems. If 20 points are allocated for any one feature, this supposes that the average judge can distinguish without undue effort 20 different levels of excellence. If he cannot, the number is excessive and should be cut to 10 or fewer. Confronted by too large a number, the natural reaction is the inspired guess: "It's about two thirds of what it should be - so I'll give 13" or "It's barely half what I would expect, therefore it gets 9" and so on. Halves, thirds and quarters become the units and indicate that a smaller figure (12 perhaps) would have been better. In formulating a system of points, the onus is on the compilers to give careful thought to the selection of features scored and the number of points allowed for each, having regard for the limits of human perception and of time available. Above all one should aim for simplicity and avoid the need for complicated sums that are liable to go wrong if done in haste.
Ideally a pointing system should give maximum spread to emphasize differences as much as possible. If all the entrants score 90% or more, something needs doing to adjust standards and magnify minor differences. It may sound harsh, but in close competition the spotlight falls on the tiniest flaws to enable a decision to be made at all. Another hard fact of judging is that the top mark, say 10 out of 10, is hardly ever awarded (except for rare instances where the character admits of a black or white score). The judge wisely plays safe, in case a super-excellent entry turns up demanding an even higher mark. The effective spread of marking is therefore only 80 or 90%.
A different situation applies if competitors are to be allowed to see their marks. This is generally a bad thing: it allows all sorts of comparisons to be made, and people have an extraordinary faith in the value of figures, so that sooner or later arguments will break out. If the marks are to be made public, the judge must be doubly on his guard to meet these challenges. A further point to note is that a well-meaning beginner who scores only, say, 16% as against a winner with 82% may well go away discouraged and never enter another competition. This is clearly undesirable. A judge should never forget his duty to encourage and give the benefit of the doubt where possible. A simple device often adopted to avoid too great a sense of inferiority is to add a large bonus mark - say 50% - for having entered at all. Thus the final mark as published will show our beginner at 58% and the winner at 91% which lessens the blow to the former's pride.
A small snag in using points is that if often results in equal marks where one seeks a clear first, second and third. In theory one can award two equal firsts followed by a third as runner up, and so on. However, this is not too popular - especially if a cup is at stake. A closer look at the criteria chosen and the levels of marking may gain or lose a point here and there. As mentioned earlier, fine differences in presentation, labeling, etc. can swing the balance, or the judge may be able to decide on the basis of which entry he would personally most like to take away. Another solution is to invite an independent judge, if available, to have the casting vote.
(E) Comparing the incomparable
Every judge sooner or later has to face the problem of choosing between two entries so dissimilar that they seem to have nothing in common at all. This may have resulted from a loosely worded schedule, or from competitors interpreting ambiguous wording in different ways. At first sight the situation is hopeless and seems to make a mockery of the whole practice of judging. The situation is not rare, and confronts judges in many diverse fields of human activity. A competition for amateur films may come up with a two-minute animated cartoon alongside a blockbuster drama or documentary with a cast of hundreds.
Restraining his urge to panic, the judge must go back to first principles. He needs to name his winner, and to be able to justify his choice when challenged afterwards. Direct comparisons are not possible. Therefore he applies what might be called the uniqueness test: he marks each entry according to its own kind. Is it a good choice of entry? Is it a good specimen of its own kind? Where and in what way could one reasonably expect improvements? And so on. By applying this technique the most disparate entries can be assessed and a verdict reached that can at least be substantiated afterwards.

Compare each to a mid range entry
Fig. 5 (E) The Uniqueness Test Comparing the incomparable
How good a specimen is it of its own kind?

General hints to judges
Finally, a few points that I have found helpful over the years:
1.  Make a preliminary tour of all the exhibits you are assigned to judge to assess the general level of excellence, note the trouble spots and detect offenders that are not according to schedule.
2.  If the wording of the schedule has led to different interpretations by different exhibitors, get an early ruling from the organizers: two heads may be better than one in deciding how to act.
3.  Judge the easiest classes first and get them out of the way. This leaves more time for the controversial ones. "Best plant in show" obviously comes last of all - but if time runs out it is not too difficult to do even after the public are admitted.
4.  In difficult cases keep a written note of any defects, like "dead leaves left on" or "evidence of mealy bug": they will be useful later if competitors seek advice or dispute the verdict.
5.  Remember that anybody rich enough can buy a rare plant, but not everybody can grow it on and maintain it.
6.  A good large plant beats a good small one, other things being equal. But a good small one beats a badly grown large one.
7.  When stuck for a decision, step back, take a long look at all the entries and ask: "Which would I have been most proud to have grown myself? Which shows the greatest skill and experience in raising?"
8.  Let justice be seen to be done. Go through the motions of looking at every entry - even those that don't have an earthly chance of winning.
9.  Answer any critic courteously, and be prepared to defend your actions if you sense that a decision is liable to raise controversy.