For some rhodie growers, entering the annual truss show comes as naturally as deadheading; they have apparently been doing it since birth. For the rest of us, however, deciding to enter a first truss, or even our twentieth, can be a complicated choice. How do we select a good one, one with enough of a chance of winning a ribbon to be worth the effort, the possible embarrassment, or the amputation of a small, prized plant?
As the Head Judge for recent truss shows, I can give some advice and encouragement. Each year before our two truss shows, the Judging Committee publishes in the Newsletter the actual rules and guidelines; I shall not repeat them here. This article will try to help you understand how you should evaluate and select your blooms.
You should start by looking for a full truss with all its buds open. The show rules specify that a truss must have no more than one quarter of its buds unopened to be benched. The rules penalize the truss for having even that legal number unopened. The only exception is for the yak and yak hybrid classes, where up to 1/4 of the buds may be unopened without penalty. The truss may have some winter-blasted pips, black and lurking in the depths of the truss; they are not held against you and should not be removed. You should not select a truss with many dead pips, since it will have fewer good flowers and will look too open. For elepidote rhodies (large-leaved) judges, like the hybridizers, look for trusses that are as full as possible with no open spots or gaps. Make sure that your truss is a single-bud one; no double or triple bud trusses are ever legal.
Choose a truss with a perfect collar of leaves. The leaves frame the flower and are essential to the overall appearance. I can't stress this enough: there should be a full circle of excellent, symmetric leaves around the bloom. Avoid leaves with insect damage, sunburn, holes from falling acorns, chlorosis etc. After a tough winter, the only blooms on some plants will be on low, side branches where the snow protected the buds; or that low, back branch may be the only one you are willing to cut on a young, special plant. You may find a magnificent bloom there, but the leaves are too often asymmetrically arranged or of uneven size for the truss to have much of a chance at the show.
Select a truss that 'presents well', that will stand upright and relatively flat in the test tube that will hold it. A beautiful truss that hangs down cannot be seen to its best advantage; here again, the low, side branch of a rhodie is a poor choice since the stem forms an awkward angle to the bloom. It is, however, perfectly legal to improve matters by propping the truss in the test tube. I recommend using a styrofoam peanut wedged between the stem and the side of the tube; it works better and more tidily than a piece of paper towel. If the stem of the truss is cut too short, it may not reach the water in the tube and the truss will start to wilt.
Judges look at trusses for something called 'substance', a hard to define, but often easy to recognize characteristic. Substance gives a bloom and its foliage more weight and definition, just as intensity and luminance add to the quality of a color. Some hybrids simply have more substance than others. When you look at several entries of the same hybrid or cultivar, some will look better, not just because they are bigger or more symmetric, but because they seem more 'substantial'. I think the best way to understand 'substance' is to find a category at a show that has many entries of the same plant. At one of my first shows I poured over eleven almost identical trusses of 'Olin O. Dobbs', a nice deep purple elepidote. Half of the entries could be easily marked down for obvious flaws, but the differences in the remainder were more subtle and hard to articulate. The winners simply looked like winners; they had that special glow, even in the midst of their similar siblings. Try to find trusses on your own plants that are just 'more' of what they are supposed to be, however mystical that may sound.
Once you have made your selection, be sure to groom your entry carefully and legally. Remove the often amazing amount of detritus that a truss can have, like pine needles and dead insects, but do not pinch off dead or damaged flowers or leaves in the top collar; that is illegal. You can wash your leaves, but do not use a leaf polish of any sort. Measure your lepidote (small-leaved with scales) and azalea sprays to make sure they are no more than fifteen inches across or high (measured above the container top). Make sure your entries are properly classified. Get to the show on time to register. Give yourself time, once the show has been judged, to study your competition. The best way to learn what the judges like is to compare the winners with the runners-up. Another great way to learn about judging is to volunteer to clerk for a few shows; that way you get to follow a team of judges around and listen to their discussions.
Spring is coming. We have an early truss show in April, often filled with lepidote entries, and then the main show Memorial Day weekend. Sharpen your clippers, focus your senses, and aim for a blue ribbon or two.