8060-photo2All I could think about was how defenseless—even pathetic—the flowers looked in their little bud vases. As I walked among them, they presented a bewildering array of colors and shapes—spheres, spikes, sprays, buds, gnarly tangles, full blooms. And then there were mixed containers of herbs and even a few “miniature” displays (sans the f word).

Welcome to the Erie County Fair Creative Arts and Flower Show, Horticulture Division. I was there to give a special award named after the magazine I edit. Although the competition is divided into flower divisions (6 classes for dahlias, 12 for marigolds, 7 for petunias, and so on), my award would be an overall ribbon covering everything in the room. It was bewildering, and there was no time, because I only had an hour or so to do this and then judge twenty-some other categories, including afghans, needlepoint, photography, Legos, and the ominous “Bucket of Junk.”

It was simple—for me—to eliminate certain divisions, however unfairly. Celosias? Hate ’em. Ugh. I can’t decide which are worse—the fleshy looking convoluted ones, or the stubby flame-shaped ones, not to mention the garish colors. Gerberas always seem commercial and impersonal. The only roses they had were hybrid tea, not my faves, and in other areas, I couldn’t imagine how a winner within the division would be chosen—all the phlox looked pretty much the same—not to mention choosing the best French marigold, “single, one spray.” Luckily I had only to choose one winner in this impossibly diverse array—a completely arbitrary process and therefore not so difficult. I ended up picking a sweet little dahlia (small decorative).

The whole thing was surreally and sublimely old-school, with its celebration of the type of old-fashioned annuals many gardeners don’t trouble with these days. It was a time capsule, but in many ways a charming one, alive with color and scent. Does your fair have shows like this? Do you enter them?

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. My fair used to have these. Now we no longer have a fair. I would enter, and I would have my children do crafts all summer preparing. It was a lot of fun for them to show their creations, and get a ribbon. They would spend some time in the garden picking their favourite flowers for showing.

    I don’t like the over priced horrible rides at the fairs, but to bring a community together it was great. Unfortunately those days are done here. Now the midway still comes to town, but we don’t go. My aunt would go to the larger fairs, and win enough money from her entries to buy a sofa one year.

    • Our fair is a very big deal–I think it is one of the largest in the country and there is a gigantic agricultural component. But I hated that I had to judge the canning division by how it looked!

    • We still have a fair- the 4h fair and it does bring the community together. The Master Gardener Volunteers judge Floriculture every year and sometimes it’s a chore with few entries. This year was great w many remarkable entries. We hope our 4H fair stays around but you can see the financial pressures are wearing it down. It is such a great learning experience for the kids…and us MGV’s!

  2. OK, lady. It’s you and me. Couldn’t agree more about gerbs – all that’s missing from that circus flower is the water squirter. But celosia? That got my hackles up. What’s not to like about brains on a stick? So they’re not the most graceful component of a bedding scheme. Right there is the crux of the argument. Bedding. I hate bedding plants and blame the twisted breeder mentality of shorter is better and everything has to bloom in 6 packs ( now 4 packs- do I hear 2?). I stopped off at the West Madison Research Garden trial garden open house a few days ago and left in disgust. Whatever happened to plants with stems? All they had were roots with flowers. Since when is it a crime to be over 4 inches tall? When we were growing Celosia as cuts in Delaware in the seventies, plume celosia was 4 feet tall. You could easily lose your dog in the field, not to mention a few shorter siblings. Crested celosia (cockscomb) was just as tall and seemed to be on fire in the intense afternoon midsummer sun. Celosia is derived from the Greek “kelos” which means burning, and if you’ve ever studied those twisted folds you’d marvel at the inexplicable inner glow. And it indeed shines as a cut flower (which is what you were judging), adding a touch of the bizarre to the simply pretty of radially symmetrical blooms. I sell it for high end wedding work every day of the summer. It’s the coral of the plant world, the creature from the deep end of the gene pool. Jump in and get some brains!

    • Right on! Thomas Jefferson grew the tall, richly colored burgundy cockscomb in his summer beds. I was there a few weeks ago and the display was stunning. Almost a hundred years ago,my Texas great grandmother, a farmer’s wife, was known for her beautiful flower beds. When my great grandfather was near the end of his life and abed, he told my mother, just a little girl, to go out in the garden and pick the biggest, reddest flower she could find. Of course, she returned with one of her grandmother’s brilliant celosias. Grandma raised the roof and grandpa winked at my mom. I love that story and am very fond of celosias.

  3. Elizabeth, be glad you’re not a flower show judge. I’m a student judge right now, and you would not even believe what a chore that can be. It comes down to the short hairs between two specimens that to the casual observer look identical – well yes, but see that faint browning on the edge of that back petal of the zinnia on the right? Well, yes, but see the tiny insect holes on the leaf of the zinnia on the left? You actually look to find fault, since only one can get the blue ribbon. It’s completely bizarre. I can’t say that I care much for doing it, but I’m trying to help out, since most of the judges are now up in their 70’s and 80’s. Still, absolutely bizarre, and in some cases, totally absurd!

  4. I am a ‘Master’ flower show judge with Garden clubs and judge the Philly flower show each year. And yes-I am under 60! Judges go through lots of rigorous training, tests, and refreshers to stay on top of their game. But judging is not arbitrary at all because we use point scoring. That means that you start with a perfect score of 100 and deduct points for ‘defects’ to come up with a total that reflects that specimen. Yes, flower show judges are an endangered species but it has opened a lot of doors for me and given me lots of opportunities in the horticulture world. I love doing it and you can’t let your personal likes and dislikes get in the way of judging. Fairs are a lot of fun to judge as you get the gamut of entries and lots of kids enter. You just do the best that you can and hope someone takes home a blue ribbon and shows it off to everyone!

  5. BTW, Elizabeth – I forgot to add yesterday that I approve of your “Best Of” choice completely. That is a lovely dahlia!

  6. Cheers! To the Hort show judges! It is offensive when someone says that it is arbitrary. It is rigorous training that takes years to become a Hort judge so it is not for the faint of heart. You have to know 1000’s of varieties of plants and know what the perfection is for them. I am a bit of a gardening addict and I have been a certified judge for the past 15 years and I am under 80, actually I am under 40.
    I just had the awesome opportunity to judge at the Lynden Fair. The turn out if exhibits was amazing. Here’s to the country Fairs- keep em going!!

  7. I just reread your post and I’m back now to take exception to your characterization of some colors as “garish”. So we still have color police? A plant is to be judged more or less acceptable by the wavelengths of the spectrum they absorb and those that they reflect? I once had your attitude, but it was a very long time ago, when certain color combinations were simply unacceptable among polite company. Pink and yellow? Horrors! Red and yellow? Shocking. Gertrude Jekyll referred to them as n**ger colors and was given a pass, in retrospect, as a product of her times. Well these are different times. The democratization of fresh flowers, the widespread availability of affordable floral accents for your home, some even artificially altered with near fluorescent sprays and dyes, has opened the door to the world of color and there’s no chance of ever shutting it again. The Pantone color of the year is Radiant Orchid, a screaming shade that might not be your cup of tea but has transformed the wedding scene in a few short months. Beauty has always been in the eye of the beholder, but should never be in the thoughts of a judge.

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