A garden of whimsy wins big at the Champlain Valley Fair

Rosemary Zezulinski cleaned up at this year’s Champlain Valley Fair, bringing home 30 ribbons.

You might think that perfect vegetables come from a perfect garden or that prize-winning tomatoes are grown under the strictest of circumstances. Rosemary Zezulinski of Charlotte, however, tips that wheelbarrow on its side. She went home from the Champlain Valley Fair this year with over two dozen ribbons for things she grew in a place she said resembles “Dr. Seuss’s garden.”

This first-time entrant into the fair’s competitions yielded a bounty similar to zucchini in late summer: Zezulinski won Best in Show, Best in Class and Judge’s Favorite, as well as 19 first-place ribbons, 7 second-place prizes and one third place.

Zezulinski works her magic in a 200×100-foot organic garden plot at her home on Ferry Road. She also grows in a greenhouse and starts almost all of her flowers, herbs and plants from seed. Because of her land’s logistics, she had to hand-deliver four truckloads of organic soil down a hill in a wheelbarrow to her garden, and before this year, she spent hours a day watering by hand. This gardening season, a new irrigation system made life a little easier.

Submitting produce to the Champlain Valley Fair isn’t as simple as putting a potato on a plate and hoping for the best—there are strict rules for presentation, and entries are assessed based on four criteria, according to the official entry handbook. Produce is judged on “Quality: marketable size, characteristic color, typical shape, appropriate stage of development or maturity; Condition: cleanliness, proper trimming, freshness, attractiveness of entry; Freedom from injury: free of mechanical injury, pest injury, blemishes, cracks, disease; Uniformity: consistent shape, size, color, stage of maturity, true to type or variety.”

Finding and preparing produce for competition is harder than it looks. Zezulinski said it’s difficult to find multiple samples of the same size. “I was out five times in one day measuring a zucchini until it hit nine and a half inches,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is insane.’”

Zezulinski said she had no expectations going into the competition and that she submitted her items after a friend urged her to compete in the Addison County Field Days and she won three first-place ribbons, which gave her the confidence to enter at the Champlain Valley Fair. When she got there, she was intimidated.

The condition aspect of the competition was especially daunting, she said, since, although cleanliness of entries is part of the judging, washing the vegetables is against the rules. She used a toothbrush and a cloth diaper she bought at a yard sale to clean her entries—and wondered a bit about her mental health. “It’s 11:30 at night, and I’m still shining this potato,” she said, “And then I’m like, does anyone else do this?”

The Champlain Valley Fair is big time. Citing some pristine, snow-white garlic, Zezulinski said, “It was amazing watching the other competitors. I didn’t think I had a shot; these people are so serious. I want to know what she did to get it that white.”

Zezulinski said when she came out on top, she was floored. “I couldn’t believe it. I got all the big ones!”

Her biggest coup was Judge’s Favorite, which was given to a basket she arranged and submitted in the Sustainable Farming category. It included herbs, edible flowers, squash, organic broccoli, squashes and other treats, and a little sign she wrote welcoming viewers.

Zezulinski said, “The woman who was running it [said] it’s so great I called it Welcome to My Garden,” she said, “and she goes, ‘You invited everybody for a glimpse into your garden and they just want to be a part of it.’ Which is really sweet.”

Though part of her wants to still enter a few categories next year, Zezulinski said she might retire. “Where am I going to go from here?”

Another reason she’s not keen on repeating her sweep is that the items submitted for the fair go to waste. “I grow stuff to eat,” she said. “The produce went to the pigs after the show.” She doesn’t have a farm stand, just donates her goodies to food shelves or shares them with friends or “people I know who could use some good fresh produce.” She also has a pumpkin patch, and she donates the pumpkins to the Halloween party for Partners in Adventure, which runs programs for adults with special needs.
As she celebrates her big win, Zezulinski is still toiling away in her Dr. Seuss garden, with tomatoes and cucumbers still coming up, and honeybells and spaghetti squash on the horizon.

“I get up at 5:30 in the morning,” she said. “There are hummingbirds, butterflies and a bunny that lives in the garden—but we made peace with each other. It’s just fun…I have such a good time with it, and I pick dinner every night.”