The state fair is a veritable smorgasbord of learning, thanks to Master Gardeners

MG Viva shows off the Bloody Butcher heirloom corn growing in the demonstration garden at the state fair.
MG Viva shows off the Bloody Butcher heirloom corn growing in the demonstration garden at the state fair.

One of my favorite things to do is to visit the state fair. One of the great things about my job is that I get to do it for work. This past week I had the privilege of once again heading to Lewisburg for the State Fair of West Virginia.

My usual job is representing WVU Extension at the WVU Building, where we interact with the public, answering questions, and teaching the unsuspecting masses (through games about plant parts, food safety, and even cow anatomy and cuts of beef — with a game called Chuck Norris behind the scenes).

Most people may think of the carnival or concerts when they think of the state fair. Other people think of cinnamon rolls or doughnuts. But when I think of the fair, I think of a learning opportunity.

Aside from the youth exhibit hall, where 4-H’ers and FFA students who have worked hard all year show off their projects on a variety of topics, other opportunities for learning abound.

Master Gardener Mike and Donna help me judge the floral competition at the state fair.
Master Gardener Mike and Donna help me judge the floral competition at the state fair.

I also love seeing new varieties of flowers or vegetables in the competitions. There were some very beautiful tomatoes this year, like the Red Zebra heirloom tomatoes that won best of show. They were so good that even I had to resist the urge to take a bite — and I don’t even like raw tomatoes (gasp! — I know, but I just don’t). You can check out my Facebook page Garden Guru John Porter to see more pictures from the fair.

Of course, nowhere has it been more apparent that we’ve had horrible gardening weather this year than in the exhibit hall at the fair. The number of exhibits was way down, thanks to the constant early rains and the diseases and issues they brought.

Indigo Red tomatoes in the MG demonstration garden

Another place you can learn a lot about gardening is the Master Gardener display garden. New varieties, displays, and more. This garden has evolved over the last several years to include a vegetable garden and a high tunnel.

A mexican sour gherkin, a tasty and tart relative of cucumbers, grows in the demo garden.

But what’s more, you get to interact with Master Gardeners. Those behind-the-scenes volunteers who work on behalf of WVU teaching others around them about gardening. I cannot say enough about these dedicated volunteers who come from around the state to share gardening with complete strangers. The Master Gardener volunteers in Greenbrier County also deserve kudos. They’re the ones who plan, plant, and maintain the garden through the whole year just for one week of glory.

I’m not just tooting the Master Gardener horn because I’m the one in charge of the program in Kanawha County. I really am impressed how these people go above and beyond to serve the people of this state. From serving as judges with me in the floral competition (and I assure you it is not as fun as you may think), from teaching children about gardening, to maintaining demonstration gardens around the state.

Artichokes in bloom in the demonstration garden.

While the fair has passed for this year, make plans to visit next year. And if you want to show off your gardening prowess, be sure to plan to bring some produce or flowers down. You could join Kanawha County Master Gardener Eleanor Ringel, who won best of show with her potted carnivorous pitcher plant. (Did I mention that you win money in addition to your ribbon and a free pass to the fair?)

In the meantime, hone your gardening skills by taking the Master Gardener class. There’s one starting up in Putnam County this fall, and they may still be taking applicants. I’ll be hosting a class starting in February, so plan ahead now. You can go ahead and register by visiting and downloading the form.

Urban Ag Conference registration closing soon

11923229_539117259569349_6178006858079319287_nIt is not too late to register for the upcoming WV Urban Ag Conference in September. It will be a great place to learn about gardening, conservation (those who take the rain barrel class will get a free rain barrel to take home), homesteading, (beer making, cheese making, canning, medicinal liquors), livestock, and more. The conference (late) fee of $100 includes lunch both days, a local foods banquet, and all workshops. Hurry and register before it’s too late!

Even if you aren’t coming to the conference, you can register for the Urban Ag Hop, a tour of home gardens, urban farms, and community gardens in the area that ends with a local foods afterparty at J.Q. Dickinson Saltworks in Malden. The price of the hop for non-conference attendees is $25 ($15 for those attending). To register for the Urban Ag Hop or the full conference, visit

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