Natural Perspectives: We got the (second-place) beet

Something about a county fair brings out the kid in all of us. With all the hope and optimism of a kid, I have been trying for several years to win a blue ribbon in the Largest Beet category at the Orange County Fair. Vic has been very supportive of my efforts, and even helped me fold the stalks of last year's giant beet into our SUV to take to the fair.

But each year, someone else always brings an even bigger beet to the fair, and I'm lucky to take second place.

I thought I had that blue ribbon nailed this year. I have been growing a couple of beets that are almost two years old now. Beets are annuals, but in our climate, they will overwinter and grow seed stalks the next year. Last year, I had some yearling beets that were too small for big beet competition. I decided to give them a second year of growth and another chance at fair competition.

My strategy worked. One of those smaller beets grew into a monster, all gnarly and knobby and bumpy. It was the ugliest thing I have ever seen. But, by golly, it was big. And that's what I was going for.

I harvested my giant beet for the competition early last Tuesday morning. Its seed stalks towered above my head. But I have learned that the judges don't count the stalks in the judging. They only look at the root, so I clipped off the stalks.

But when I turned the beet over, I was dismayed to discover that bugs had burrowed into the center and hollowed it out. I figured it had no chance in the giant beet category with that hole in it.

I looked at that ugly, misshapen orb and wondered what the heck to do with it. I decided to enter it in the Most Unusually Shaped Vegetable category instead of Largest Beet.

After taking my beet to the fair early Tuesday morning, I went to the Huntington Beach Community Garden to water my plot. There I ran into Bob Granger, who had also just entered vegetables into competition at the fair that morning. While I'm an old hand at losing out on blue ribbons at the fair, Bob is new to the game. This was the first time he had entered.

"I was like a kid on Christmas morning," he said. He and his wife Becky had picked tomatoes and green beans the day before and lined them up on their kitchen counter to choose which ones to take. Bob was so excited that he had awakened at 4 a.m. to get his vegetables ready. He entered the tomato category, and Becky entered green beans.

But upon their arrival at the fairgrounds in Costa Mesa on Tuesday morning, Bob was dismayed to see how many other people had entered tomatoes. It is a very popular category. Despite the heavy competition, he entered anyway.

I hadn't even looked to see how many people had entered giant beets or unusually shaped vegetables. I was just hoping that my beet wouldn't get disqualified for having a hole chewed in it.

Vic and I went to the fair with Mark Singer last Wednesday to see how my ugly beet had done in competition. With my heart in my mouth, I went over to Centennial Farm where the fruit and vegetable competitions are held. Would my strategy of entering my big beet in Most Unusually Shaped vegetable pay off in a blue ribbon?

No, it didn't. I got beat out by a totally weird kohlrabi that had sprouted little kohlrabis all over its stalk. That bumpy, lime-green thing looked like a vegetable from outer space. It was definitely worthy of the blue ribbon for unusual shape.

My monster beet took second place, but there wasn't much glory in a red ribbon. As far as I could see, there were only two entries in the category. My second place was also last place.

I was most anxious to see how Bob's tomatoes had fared. His Jet Setter tomatoes were really grand, so I figured he had a chance. Despite tough competition, his three beautiful bright red globes won a third place ribbon. He was beat out of a higher score by three huge paste tomatoes that took first, and some lovely Black Krim tomatoes in second place. Sadly, the green beans didn't get a ribbon.

I'm now looking at my garden to see what vegetables might be ready for this week's competition. I wonder if there is a category where mine would be the sole entry. That might be my only chance for a blue ribbon.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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