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Winning show bench tips from Andrew Tokely

Sweetcorn is one of those vegetables that were once deemed by the beginner and seasoned exhibitor to be difficult to grow for showing. In my opinion it is probably one of the easier vegetables to master for the show bench. In fact any gardener who has a healthy block of sweetcorn plants growing on their allotment, has a chance of picking up a prize card.

The secret of success is choosing the right variety for the area you live in. Yes, even gardeners in the north of England can grow sweetcorn for show if they choose an early maturing variety like 'Conquest' Fl. You then need to grow your plants well, so they are strong and healthy - oh, and then if possible develop x-ray vision like Superman.

The x-ray vision is the hard bit to master because at many shows you have to exhibit your cobs as picked, hence you can't look inside the husk to see if the cobs are full of ripe kernels, but the judge can. Don't let this put you off because with a few tips from me of what to look for at harvest time, you will almost develop those x-ray eyes, so you can impress that judge and hopefully pick up a prize card.

Sweetcorn for show

I find sweetcorn a useful vegetable to grow for the 'Any other Vegetable' class or even for adding to a collection. But many shows nowadays also have a separate class for sweetcorn.

At my local show in Capel St Mary, Suffolk, the show schedule asks for '3 sweetcorn cobs as picked', so they must be shown unopened, hence the need for x-ray vision. At some other shows they ask for '3 prepared sweetcorn cobs', these are shown open, which is a lot easier.

Growing for exhibition

In order to get my sweetcorn at its peak on an early September show day, I find it is best sown the second week in April under

LEFT Plant on a sunny site into soil which is rich in organic matter to feed the plants and help hold moisture through the summer months RIGHT Andrew likes to use Rootrainers for growing his young sweetcorn plants as they help reduce root disturbance when planting

glass. I always sow the seeds into Rootrainers or deep pots so they get the minimum of root disturbance. I will then have good sized plants ready for planting out the first week of June after all risk of frost has passed.

Always plant in a block for better pollination in a sunny site. The soil should also have had plenty of organic matter added to it, to help retain moisture through the long hot summer.

Another way of retaining moisture is to make the soil into a dish shape with slightly raised sides around the block of plants. This will help hold the water in around the plants like a saucer, so when you need to give them a good drink it has time to soak into the soil rather than run away.

As the plants grow it is very important that you get good pollination, as without this you won't have any cobs. I have often noticed that when the plants are flowering the weather is very still, yet ideally you need a slight breeze to get good pollination. To aid this process I always go along my plants and give each one a gentle shake each day for about two weeks to help distribute the pollen and aid pollination and cob set.

Care of the crop

Throughout the summer and especially in August I make sure the plants are kept well watered. August is the month the cobs will be swelling and filling out, and if your plants go short of water now, these cobs may not develop properly. I also like to give my plants a high potash liquid feed, such as a tomato food or Phostrogen, for the first two weeks of August as this will

Here the schedule asked for the cobs to be shown open, so the husk has been partially removed to expose the kernels within

give the plants a boost and also help those cobs to develop.

Remember plants that go short of water and food at this crucial time will result in gappy cobs that will be useless for the show bench, but will bring a joy to that judge when he discovers your under-developed cobs.

In the week leading up to show day I like to keep a close eye on my developing cobs and try to match up cobs of similar size. Once I decide on cobs that almost match I tie a piece of coloured string or wool around the cob making it easier to find a set later in the week when I need to pick them. Try to

LEFT Sweetcorn is wind pollinated and planting in a close block aids the transfer of pollen from one plant to another RIGHT Cobs of 'Ovation' at the right stage for harvesting. Note the silks at the end of the cob have turned brown

select cobs that are straight and of a uniform length and thickness.

The best way to tell if your cobs are ripe is to select the ones where the silks at the end have turned brown. The safest way of checking, though, is the night before the show; sacrifice one of the cobs, peel back the husk and inspect the kernels inside. These should squirt out a milky liquid when pressed with your thumbnail. If the cob is full and fresh and the milky juice is produced, all is OK. Now all you have to do is make sure the cobs you have selected all look similar in maturity to that one. I bet you wish you had those x-ray eyes now.

If the show schedule asks for prepared cobs this guesswork isn't required as you


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