Famous Last Words

Famous last words: If you don’t like my winterberry, keep it to yourself. That was my first reaction after my ill-considered submission of a winterberry branch with dead leaves at our December garden club meeting. At the time, I thought the specimen met requirements and was doubtful I’d ever submit anything again after its lackluster reception.

But, I don’t like to give up. So, after the dust settled, I pulled out my Handbook for Flower Shows and analyzed what went wrong. It turns out, a lot. First, though the branch was less than 30” and included several nodes as required, dead leaves are unacceptable and should be removed. Second, arboreal specimens should include the central leader (the tallest, vertical branch at the top and in the center of the tree or shrub), to be considered an outstanding specimen; mine did not.

Over the winter, we had other opportunities at garden club meetings to fine-tune our understanding of flower show exhibitions and what makes an outstanding specimen. One month, it was houseplants. Another it was forced bulbs. At each meeting, I learned more and became more deliberate about what I contributed. A clean pot, fresh soil, and well-proportioned specimen show well. Symmetry, mass and good grooming count. It is all perhaps self-evident: though most horticulture is attractive in its way, a show specimen must meet certain standards and the more it approximates “perfection”, the better. In the end, if you want to win an award, you have to be a little ruthless and very selective about what you choose. After all, a show is a little like a beauty contest.

With a few months to reflect and learn, I decided to throw my hat in the ring for the state flower and garden show—or as I described it, throw myself on the mercy of the court. There were a number of horticultural categories. I felt most comfortable with forced bulbs and branches. A number of amaryllis bulbs were possibilities, but they needed to have four blooms open at once. We also have several shrubs and trees with branches suitable for forcing: Witch Hazel “Arnold’s Promise”, Star Magnolia and a Giant or Japanese Pussy Willow—the one shrub my husband hasn’t touched so it had a central leader and many branches with apical tips.


Experimenting with Witch Hazel and Pussy Willow

I monitored the amaryllis, as I forced successive branches. The Witch Hazel bloomed too quickly and, though beautiful, I worried would look past its prime when judged. The Star Magnolia was captivating, but the flowers were blooming successively not concurrently and the central leader/apical tip was missing. The amaryllis had two blooms open, but I wasn’t confident the other two would be open for judging. The Pussy Willow bloomed quickly also, but having forced branches at different times, it was easier to time when it would look optimal.


Forced Star Magnolia, beautiful but blooms difficult to time

I decided to submit a Pussy Willow branch, forced to show its large silvery catkins sometimes compared to the size of a rabbit’s foot. I went out to the shrub, never pruned and tall and wide now, and surveyed it for one flawless specimen—a branch with an apical tip, heavily budded, and the central leader. The branch was 12 feet high. I grabbed a ladder and pruners and cut.

The drive to the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford on Tuesday was stressful. Though I packed carefully, I worried the glass jar with the specimen would tip over, damaging the catkins. I didn’t have a phone, so I couldn’t get lost and the car couldn’t break down. Fortunately, the trip was uneventful and when I arrived, any anxiety dissipated on entering the busy show site, which was in the process of set-up. I made a final cut to the branch so it was under 30”, arranged it in the bottle so it was straight, checked it for cosmetic imperfections, and bid it goodbye.


A partial view of my entry, Salix chaenomeloides

Judging was the next day. Though I knew I shouldn’t, I kept looking at the clock as I worked. For some reason, I thought the results would be posted, but they weren’t. On Thursday, I called a fellow gardener working at the show. She didn’t know the results, but volunteered to bring my branch with the scorecard home when the show ended Sunday. I told her I planned to visit the show, so it wouldn’t be necessary.

Two hours later, I got a message that stunned me. I got a blue ribbon. It was thrilling—like getting a hole in one or hitting a grand slam, a slight exaggeration perhaps.


One for the books

At the show on Sunday, as my husband and I gazed at the specimen (way too long to make sense), an accomplished gardener I know came up behind us. Her husband shared that her design had won best in show. I was delighted and asked what she would do with her ribbon. “Oh, I just throw them in a notebook.” I’m not sure I’ll ever receive another. Mine will be framed.

Do you want to force a branch? Forsythia, cherry, apple, magnolia, pussy willow, Japanese maple, quince, and witch hazel are all good candidates. Choose branches that have lots of buds and put them in water as you work. Bring the branches inside and rinse off the branches in a sink filled with tepid water if you like. Cut the branch ends at an angle and arrange the branches in your vase, which should be filled with warm water so the ends are submerged. Place in a cool room or if you want the process to go more quickly in a warmer room. At this time of year, it may take only a few days for witch hazel and pussy willow to bloom and look their best. Forsythia takes a few days more and the other varieties can take up to several weeks.


9 Comments Add yours

  1. tonytomeo says:

    Oh! I wrote about the blue ribbon that I never win a while ago. It is for the Jelly and Jam Competition at the Santa Cruz Mountains Harvest Festival. I win second place every year, except last year (long story), but NEVER first place!


    1. I saw it! Your jam sounds fantastic and the winning submission sounds intriguing, too!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. tonytomeo says:

        hmmmmm. Very embarrassing. I intend to win this year! REALLY!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think you will! Can’t wait to read about it.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. tonytomeo says:

        If (WHEN) I win, I will make sure EVERYONE knows about it!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. thegsandwich says:

    You’re pussy willow branch IS stunning, and every bit deserving of a blue ribbon. Congratulations! This should give you confidence for future submissions. Got get ’em.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Impossible to go wrong with pussy willow. Naturally beautiful and easy to grow


  3. Amy says:

    So impressive!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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