Published on 07/22/99

Make Your Veggies Look Their Very Best

Exhibiting in a fair or gardening club competition can teach you how to make a picture-perfect display of your garden vegetables.

Whether you plan to exhibit or just make the best impression at your table, here are some tips on making your veggies look their best.

Asparagus Beets Broccoli Brussels sprouts
Cabbage Cantaloupe or Muskmelon Carrots Cauliflower
Chinese cabbage Cucumbers Dry beans Eggplant
Endive English peas Garlic Kale
Kohlrabi Lettuce Lima beans Okra
Onions Parsnips Peas (southern, blackeye, crowder) Peppers (hot)
Peppers (sweet) Potatoes Pumpkin Pumpkin (Cushaw)
Radish Rhubarb Snap beans Spinach
Squash (Summer) Squash (Winter) Sweet corn Sweet potatoes
Swiss chard Tomatoes Turnips Watermelon

Asparagus. Select straight, dark green spears at least 1/2 inch diameter at the butt end. Trim to a uniform length of 7 to 8 inches. Display in water to prevent wilting.

Beets. Roots should be well-colored, smooth, tender and well-shaped according to variety. Select roots 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 inches in diameter. Allow most of tap root to remain. Trim tops 1 to 1-1/2 inches.

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Photo: Univ. of Florida

Broccoli. Select heads that are fresh, firm, tender, tight and crisp. Color should be dark green with a bluish cast, with no yellow florets. The head should be at least 3 inches, with the stalk 6 to 8 inches long. Remove all leaves below the head.

Brussels sprouts. Sprouts should not be less than 1 inch in diameter. They should be round, fresh and firm. Stems should be smoothly trimmed to about 1/4 inch.

Cabbage. Heads should be firm, crisp and heavy for their size. Don't trim excessively, but remove loose leaves, keeping the last two to three wrapper leaves that show the field color rather than the shaded undercolor. Cut the stem squarely at the base of the outermost leaf.

Cantaloupe or Muskmelon. Most melons will be of the netted type. These separate from their stems when ripe and should be shown without stem attached. Crenshaw melons should be represented in a separate class and shown with about an inch of stem attached. Select well-formed, round fruits with slightly sunken stem scar. Netting should be well-defined with the rind showing a grayish or yellowish tinge. Clean with a soft brush rather than washing.

Carrots. Select straight roots typical of the variety, free from cracks, knots and greening of the shoulders. Cut tops squarely about 1 inch long. Remove stumps of dead leaves. Wash free of soil carefully, but don't scrub.

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Photo: Wayne McLaurin

Cauliflower. Select heads that are firm, crisp, white and free of graininess and roughness. The head should be 5 or more inches in diameter. It should not be granular or ricy. Remove lower wrapper leaves.

Chinese cabbage. Heads should be thick, firm and crisp. Allow two to four outer leaves to remain. Heads may be washed and dried before showing.

Cucumbers. Cut from vine with about 1/4 inch of stem. Wipe gently to clean and remove spines. Wash only if necessary. Select smooth, straight, crisp, dark green fruit. Yellowing or softening indicate overripeness. Cucumbers should have at least two classes: picklers and slicers. Picklers should not be more than about 1-1/2 inches in diameter and 5 inches long. Slicers should not be more than 2-1/2 inches in diameter and generally range between 6 to 9 inches. Longer types are OK if characteristic of the variety.

Dry Beans. Unshelled dry beans are harvested, selected and displayed in the same way as fresh beans. They may not be washed, but trash will have to be removed by careful brushing.

Eggplant. Select normal-sized fruit, well-colored without greening or bronzing. Color should be deep purple, nearly black. The calyx or "cap" should be bright green with about 1/2 inch of stem remaining. Don't oil fruits to increase shine, but polish lightly with a soft cloth.

Endive. Select full crisp, fresh plants. Wash roots and exhibit with roots in water.

English Peas. Select large, plump, bright green pods well-filled with seeds at the eating stage. Don't wash, and handle carefully to preserve the waxy "bloom" on the pods.

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Photo: Scott Bauer, USDA-ARS

Garlic. Select plump, well-colored bulbs with dry necks. Trim top to 1/2 to 1 inch and roots to 1/4 inch.

Kale. Select plants with bright stems and dark green, crisp leaves. Wash roots and exhibit whole plant with roots in water. Lower leaves may be removed if discolored.

Kohlrabi. Select firm, tender stems 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 inches in diameter. If dirty, they should be washed and dried. Trim tops to allow only 1 to 2 inches remaining, and trim bottoms to 1/2 inch.

Lettuce. Select full, crisp plants with well-colored leaves typical of variety. Wash roots and exhibit one entire plant with roots in water. Lower, discolored leaves may be removed.

Lima Beans. Select full-size, dark green pods that are still tender and fresh. Beans inside should be well-developed. Don't use pods that have begun to yellow. Arrange neatly as described for snap beans.

Okra. Select fresh, green, fairly straight pods no longer than 4 inches with about 1/2 inch of stem attached. Clean by gently brushing, but do not wash pods.

Onions. May be classed by type as flat (Bermuda), round, top shape (Grano or Granex) and torpedo, with further breakdowns by color (red, yellow, white). Select large, smooth, clean bulbs. The neck should be dry and trimmed to 1/2 to 1 inch. Brush clean and remove extremely loose outer dry skins. Leave on dry skin that is clean and fairly tight to the bulb. Don't peel onions beyond dry, mature skins. Roots should be clean and left on the bulb, although they may be trimmed back to no less than 1/2 inch for a neater display. Never cut them off entirely.

Parsnips. Select medium-sized, smooth, straight roots, free of side roots. Roots may be washed and dried. Trim tops to 1 to 2 inches.

Peas (southern, blackeye, crowder). These are actually beans and should be displayed as described in the section on dried beans.

Peppers (hot). Select for uniform color, shape and size. Leave about 1/2 inch of stem. A class of dried hot peppers is sometimes included.

Peppers (sweet). Colors (green, red, yellow) should be displayed as separate classes. Green peppers should not be streaked with red. Select large, deeply colored, heavy fruits. Cut stem squarely 1/2 to 1 inch long. Select for uniform number of lobes. Wipe clean if necessary.

Potatoes. White, red, russet. Select carefully for uniform shape and size. Don't display any tubers with greening in the skins. Wash gently if necessary, but if they're fairly clean, brush with a soft brush for best results. Skin should be mature and not flake up easily when rubbed or handled. Potatoes should not appear scrubbed.

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Pumpkin. Select only symmetrical round or oval fruits. Each pumpkin should stand upright and have a uniform color typical of the variety. Cut stems 2 to 3 inches long, depending on the size of the pumpkin. Wash or wipe clean, but don't polish away the natural wax on the surface.

Pumpkin (Cushaw). This plant is a member of a small, intermediate species of pumpkins and squash and is sometimes listed as a crookneck squash. It is distinctive enough to be shown separately and should not compete with other pumpkins. It should have hard skin and prominent white and green streaking. The curve of the neck on all fruit in a display should be similar.

Radish. Select smooth, brightly colored or pure-white roots characteristic of variety. Wash and dry roots, and remove discolored leaves. Exhibit with leaves in a bunch or bunches.

Rhubarb. Rhubarb should have uniform color. Stalks should be about 1 inch or more across the flat face at the center of the stalk. Stalks should be straight, not curved or twisted. Tops should be neatly trimmed, leaving 1 to 2 inches of leaves and prongs. Remove basal husks. Bundle stalks for exhibit.

Snap Beans. Green or yellow, pole or bush. Display whole with about 1/4 inch of stem, cleaned and free of trash or spent blossoms. Pods should be plump and fleshy with small seeds from 1/4 to 1/8 inch in diameter. Select pods the same degree of curvature and arrange with stems and curves facing the same way.

Spinach. Select thick, crisp, deeply colored plants. Wash roots and remove any lower, discolored leaves. Exhibit with roots in water.

Squash (Summer). Straightneck, crookneck, zucchini, etc. Harvest close to time of exhibit and hold in refrigeration. Summer squash should be young and tender. Brush gently to clean, or wash if necessary. Largest sizes are undesirable in this crop. Best eating-stage size is as follows: Crookneck, 4 to 5 inches long; Zucchini, 6 to 7 inches long; Scallop, 2 inches diameter. Trim stems to 1/4 to 1/2 inch.

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Photo: Wayne McLaurin

Squash (Winter). (Acorn, butternut, buttercup, Hubbard, etc.) Harvest when well matured with hard rinds. Color should be fully developed and typical of variety. Brush gently to clean, or wash if essential, but don't remove any waxy natural covering that may be present in some varieties. Leave about 1 inch of stem. Select sizes typical of the type or variety.

Sweet corn. Select fully filled ears with kernels at "milky" stage. Top end may be opened neatly and carefully to check for maturity and earworms. Check for complete filling of ears by firmly grasping ears in several positions. Husk should feel tight over entire surface. It's best to carve "window" in side of husk to expose several rows of kernels. Dry silks that are firmly attached need not be removed, or may be trimmed back to about 1 inch. Neatly cut off shank about 1 inch below cob. "Roasting ears" of field corn should not be entered in sweet corn class. Brush any dirt off ears, and sprinkle with water occasionally before exhibiting to preserve freshness.

Sweet potatoes. Select and clean as for Irish potatoes. Avoid breaking stems and "tail" roots back into the main flesh. Avoid crooked potatoes or those with corky patches. Well-shaped roots of medium size are better than extremely large roots of poor shape. Very slender roots also are not desirable.

Swiss chard. Select crisp, well-colored leaves with bright, tender stems. Leaves and stems should be 8 to 10 inches long. Wash if necessary, and exhibit with stems in water.

Tomatoes. Tomatoes should be shown in separate classes by color or form: red, pink, yellow, cherry, pear, etc. They should be full-colored and at peak maturity, but not overripe. Varieties without cracking or green shoulders are best. Show with stem end down and stem and calyx removed. Clean carefully -- don't wash unless you absolutely must. Don't cover with film or other moisture-proof material. Size should be typical of variety. Blossom end scar should be minimal although the accepted size may vary with variety.

Turnips. Select smooth, firm roots with good color and no side roots. Roots should be 2 to 4 inches in diameter, but uniform in size within display. Cut tops back to about 1 inch. You don't have to cut back the tap root, but may remove as much of the very thin end as needed to make it look its best.

Watermelon. Select large, well-shaped, symmetrical melons with good color typical of variety. Mature melons may have creamy or yellow bottom. Don't plug melon for exhibit, although the judge may plug it if competition is close and there is some question about maturity. Overripe melons often look dull and are somewhat springy when pressed. Melons at best eating stage should look velvety. When cleaning melons, don't remove waxy covering. Leave 1 to 1.5 inches of stem on melon.

Wayne McLaurin is a professor emeritus of horticulture with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.