Costa Mesa gardener has fruitful O.C. Fair competition season as he again rakes in the most ribbons

Costa Mesa resident Joseph Strubbe is a passionate gardener. He won 272 awards during competitions at this year's Orange County Fair, including many for his plants.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Joseph Strubbe’s home looks like any other in his quiet Costa Mesa neighborhood.

But crack open the garage door and you will be greeted by a shrine of colorful Orange County Fair ribbons covering nearly every open space and rippling from the rafters. Past the ribbons is the backyard and an oasis of green.

This year, Strubbe raked in the most awards of anyone who entered the slew of public competitions held during the Orange County Fair, mostly for his dozens of plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables.

The OC Fair & Event Center said Strubbe won 272 awards in all, including three best in shows, 15 division wins, seven staff favorites, three for his collections and the fair’s inaugural Renaissance Award — given to the person who amassed the most awards across different categories.

“It’s very tiring,” Strubbe, 77, said with a chuckle.

Each plant requires individualized care. Some need to be watered every day, others every week or two. Some are happier in the shade, while others turn their faces toward the sun. They need to be repotted, their roots need to be cut and they often need trimming.

Strubbe also practices bonsai, the art of shaping live plants. He meets regularly with his “sensei” — Al Nelson, an 87-year-old bonsai master — to learn the intricacies of caring for the finicky plants.

Then there are specifications for the fair itself: Not only should the plant look full and healthy, but its shape and color must be perfect and its pot an appropriate match.

Where does Strubbe keep all the information?

He points to his head.

“You put so much of you into them,” he said of his plants. “You train them.”

Costa Mesa resident Joseph Strubbe poses with some of the hundreds of ribbons he's won in competitions at the Orange County Fair.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

He tries to add a twist each year. Last year, he entered pressed flowers. This year, he made flower arrangements.

“Our O.C. Fair competitions continue to highlight the reason that county fairs exist — to honor those in the community who grow, create and innovate in agriculture and the arts,” said Fair & Event Center Vice President of Business Development Michele Richards, whose team oversees the competitions. “Joseph Strubbe is an amazing competitor and we are so proud to see his outstanding accomplishments rewarded.”

Strubbe’s work for his flood of fair-time entries begins as early as February, when he starts growing and grooming his verdant garden.

Potted plants line the walls and cluster around a bench and swing in his backyard. Trees grow along the edges and in the middle of a neatly trimmed grassy patch. End-of-season produce — carrots, peppers, tomatillos — sprout in bunches behind a row of red zinnias.

Strubbe, a 19-year Costa Mesa resident, frequently attended the fair over the years, but it wasn’t until 2010 that he became acquainted with the “plant people.” He entered the fair’s competitions for the first time in 2011 and the next year took home the most awards of anyone — an accomplishment he says he has maintained every year since.

Strubbe’s green thumb sprouted as a young boy living on a farm outside Springfield, Ill. He built a sanctuary of green on a plot beside the outdoor toilets.

Strubbe spent 25 years of his adult life teaching religion, English and social studies at Ascension Lutheran School in Torrance.

At age 48, his career swerved and he moved to St. Louis for a few years to attend a seminary. He returned to Southern California as a pastor at Abiding Savior Lutheran Church in Lake Forest and then Christ Lutheran Church in Costa Mesa.

Since childhood, his love for plants has entwined with his love for God.

“It’s such a miracle,” he said. “God takes those itty bitty seeds … you look at those plants and you just see him.”

Joseph Strubbe holds a tomatillo he grew in his home garden.
Joseph Strubbe holds a tomatillo he grew in his home garden.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Though he retired about 11 years ago, Strubbe remains active at Christ Lutheran, directing the choir, serving as a pastor to those who can’t make it to services, leading small groups and growing a family that supports his passion for plants.

“He’s got 10 green thumbs,” said the Rev. Glenn Shelton, an associate pastor at Christ Lutheran.

Shelton said he and dozens of others from the church attend the fair every year — not to eat fried Oreos but to see Pastor Joe and his entries.

“He kind of crushes his competition every year,” Shelton said. “Of course, he does it in love.”

Bella Brown, receptionist for Christ Lutheran School, said she stumbled onto Strubbe’s exhibits this year for the first time. In addition to his other arrangements, Strubbe enters item collections — this year, carved eagles and miniature cottages.

When she saw the many entry cards at the fair printed with his name, Brown thought, “Wow! That is a lot.”

Strubbe usually attends the fair at least twice a week during its run: on Tuesday mornings to drop off two carloads of entries for the week’s competitions and on Wednesdays to see how he fared with the judges. Occasionally, he said, he overhears passersby discussing his work.

“People will say, ‘Who’s this Joseph Strubbe? He needs to get a life!’ ” Strubbe said with a laugh.

He sometimes worries that people will get the wrong impression and be too intimidated to try gardening themselves. He said he hopes his plethora of entries will inspire others — if he can grow something, someone else can too.

Even after nine years and hundreds of awards, Strubbe said he still gets excited by each new ribbon.

“I’ve been [winning awards] for a long time,” he said with a shrug. “I still love it.”

Support our coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.