The Secret Art of Vegetable Judging
‘It is very addictive; in fact, it is an obsession,’ says Caddy Wilmot-Sitwell describing her new found role as a professional judge of vegetables at horticultural shows up and down the country.
If you, like me, have gazed with wonderment on exquisite onions replete with an opalescent gleam at your village show, it is gripping to discover the secret world of vegetable judging.
It is a rigorous exacting process to qualify as a professional judge, not for the faint hearted. The procedure comprises three tests set by the National Vegetable Society. Caddy had to sit a two hour written exam, then evaluate a selection of diseased vegetables and finally scrutinize a mock horticultural show of tables of carrots and onions which had already secretly been inspected by two judges. ‘We had no idea what their judgements were.’
Caddy’s first official judging role will be at next month’s Shrewsbury Show on the 9th and 10th August. ‘I will be nervous but very excited. I love the buzz of entering the tent, the smell of the canvas and the grass, and thinking of all the exhibitors painstakingly planning for the past year in their individual quests to achieve perfect vegetables. They are a friendly good natured lot.’
How does one become so enamoured of vegetable growing? Caddy grew up near Godinton House, just outside Ashford, Kent. As a 12-year-old girl she would wander into the garden at Godinton, and made friends’ with the Head Gardener, Mr. Costen, who taught her how the art of beekeeping. ‘He was a real old fashioned country person.’
Years later Caddy, by now an avid beekeeper, whilst studying at City and Guilds of London Art School, showed her honey at the Kensington and Chelsea National Honey Show. Her black honey – ‘it looked like Guinness’ – won first prize. She has never looked back, entering scores of honey and horticultural shows. For some years she had an allotment in Dulwich, where she made an asparagus bed using seashells gathered at Shellness on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent.
On moving to Bridport, Dorset, she established a vegetable garden, where to this day she grows an astonishing array of superb vegetables as her enviable Instagram account testifies. Her pictures are littered with prizes from horticultural shows. It seems an obvious progression to graduate from growing prize winning produce to being a judge.
Amongst her many successes are the delightfully named ‘Tough Ball Onions’. ‘When I first began growing onions I would gaily plant 300 in the hope of getting five worthy of showing.’ But a pro told her, ‘it is ridiculous, just plant 20.’
Extreme patience and a methodical approach to life are the two requisites vital for the skilled art of vegetable growing. For example, to achieve perfect onions any split skins must be peeled away after they have been harvested before being dusted with talcum powder. Then they are placed onto a bed of sawdust and kept in the dark for two weeks to go brown. At this point the outer skins can be gently peeled off. The final flourish is to turn the tops over, tying them with raffia. Caddy tells me that some rascals use egg white to stick down split skins. And as for plugging holes in show potatoes, it is not unknown for soap to be employed in this elusive quest for excellence.
Every show vegetable, it seems, has its tricks: every hair on a carrot is removed with tweezers, tomatoes are buffed and to keep the bloom on peas they must only be handled by the stalk.
Growing carrots in barrels is one of Caddy’s favourites. You may well ask what this means- she explains the process: she fills oil barrels with sand and cores out holes with a drainpipe into which she pours ‘a most delicious mix of compost’. Next she plants the seeds on top of the sand and waits to see which looks the strongest seedling. It’s a tense moment when she pulls out the fully grown carrot without breaking the whip, as the tip of a show carrot is called. ‘It could easily snap in two,’ but the extra inch or two could be crucial when being judged. Many top carrot growers transport their crop in velvet lined boxes.
‘It is very technical, there is no emotion involved and growing vegetables for shows is totally unlike vegetable gardens aimed at feeding a family. The taste of the show vegetables is not relevant. All the strict rules are set out in the Royal Horticultural Society’s ‘Show Handbook: the official RHS guide to organising, judging and competing in a show.’
Now we know some of the secrets. What a pity that celebrated painter of beautiful vegetables and flowers, Eliot Hodgkin, didn’t live to meet Caddy. They would have been peas in a pod. The superb Eliot Hodgkin exhibition at Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire is on until October 2020.