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Competing for the biggest cabbage

Montana's 2011 state winner Meadow Zelenitz with her 65-pound cabbage; it's the largest ever grown in the program's history. (MCT)

Montana's 2011 state winner Meadow Zelenitz with her 65-pound cabbage; it's the largest ever grown in the program's history. (MCT) Purchase photo reprints »

Kids may turn up their noses at the smell of cabbage cooking in the kitchen, but thousands of youngsters nationwide take pride in growing the biggest cabbages they can.

Their gardening skills show up in the annual Bonnie Plants Cabbage Program, which earns them scholarships and hands-on lessons in the garden. In 2012, more than 1.5 million third-graders in 48 states tended to cabbages, hoping to win “best in state” and $1,000 in educational money.

“The program is a wonderful way to engage children’s interest in agriculture, while teaching them not only the basics of gardening, but the importance of our food systems and growing our own,” says Stan Cope, president of Bonnie Plants.

In Virginia, Evan Justus, a third-grader at Elk Garden Elementary in Rosedale, took home the state’s title with a cabbage that looks almost as big as he is and weighed more than 14 pounds. Some kids have grown cabbages that tipped the scales at 40 pounds, according to Bonnie Plants.

The biggest cabbage every grown in the history of the program was a 65-pounder by the Montana state winner in 2011.

Launched nationally in 2002, the program awards a $1,000 scholarship to one student in each participating state. At the end of the season, teachers from each class select the student who has grown the “best” cabbage, based on size and appearance. A digital image of the cabbage and student is submitted online at http://www.bonnieplants.com/. That student’s name is then entered in a statewide drawing. State winners are randomly selected by the commissioner of agriculture in each state.

Why a cabbage-growing contest? Cabbages were the first successful crop for Bonnie Plants in 1918. Cabbages used for the third-grade program are OS Cross, or an over-sized one, that’s known for producing giant heads, thereby making the process more exciting for kids, says a Bonnie Plants spokesperson. The program is free, geared specifically to third-graders and is open to home-schooled students.

To test your own cabbage-growing skills, follow these tips:

Cabbages, which like to grow in cool weather, need at least six hours of full sunlight, more if possible.

Bonnie O.S. cabbages need at least three feet on each side to spread out. If you don’t have that much space, use a large container.

Work some compost into the soil — cabbages love nutrient-rich soil.

Your cabbage needs at least one inch of rainfall each week. If it doesn’t rain, use a watering can or garden hose to gently water your plant at soil level.

Cold weather can damage your cabbage. If the weather gets below 32 degrees, cover your cabbage with a bucket or cloth covering.

In just 10 to 12 weeks, you should have a huge head of cabbage you can be proud of.

To see all the 2012 winners and learn more about how you can get cabbage seedlings for your third-graders for the 2013 contest, visit www.bonnieplants.com/.

Start your cabbage off right with an all-purpose vegetable fertilizer, then fertilize it every 10 days to keep it growing strong.

Keep weeds out of the cabbage patch — they compete for the food and water your cabbage needs. Be on the lookout for brown or white moths — these come from worms that love to munch on cabbage. If you see any, get rid of them right away.

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