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Gardening to win ... starts with informal contest - 'first ripe tomato on the block'

Why do people garden? Some do it for the flavor of home-grown vegetables, for the benefits of fresh air and sunshine, or for economic reasons. A few, however, garden to win.

These are the gardeners who practice the sport of competitive gardening.

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It starts with that informal contest among neighboring gardeners known as ''the first ripe tomato on the block.'' Then come the blue-ribbon entries at the county fair and an entry or two at the state fair.

From there the goal is to gain Guinness Book of World Records fame by growing the biggest, longest, or heaviest vegetable, fruit, or flower. Guinness made the sport official in 1979 by announcing its search for United States and world competitors in this ''Olympics of gardening.''

Of all vegetables grown, the pumpkin is one of the most competitive, with reports from one challenger of vines growing 9 feet a week and the giant gaining 71/2 pounds a day.

There are even reports of kidnapped vegetables, with ransom demands computed on a per-pound basis.

A Canadian gardener has the distinction of holding the prestigious International Pumpkinship Crown for three consecutive years. He breeds his own strain of giant pumpkins, the largest weighing in at 4931/2 pounds.

For those who don't breed their own, Jane Grace, the judge of the Guinness horticultural records, is proprietor of a mail-order catalog that sells the world's most unusual seeds and also offers seeds from former championship strains.

Priced at $1 to $5 each, these limited-edition seeds have been available in the past from such winners as the 61/2-pound tomato, 197-pound watermelon, 135 -pound banana squash, 10-pound, 2-ounce sweet potato, 23-foot, 61/2-inch sunflower, and 513-pound squash.

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Competitive gardeners share some of their secrets in Jane Grace's catalog. Obviously, planting seeds from genetic giants is the first step in developing a champ.

Those with winning genes are found at the county and state fair competitions. The training diet for competitive vegetables consists of a smorgasbord of balanced fertilizer blends, seaweed, compost, cover crops, and plenty of water.

Nature is too slow for these impatient gardeners, who speed up the process by hand-pollination of one select blossom and then prune off all the other flowers to concentrate the plant's entire strength by growing only one vegetable per plant.

Like all sports, gardening has its own version of the Super Bowl.

In addition to county and state fairs throughout the US, major events attracting thousands of spectators each year include the Circleville, Ohio, Pumpkin Show, the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, Tomato Festival, and the Halfmoon Bay, Calif., Festival in October.

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