For a decade, Bonnie Plants has been turning third-graders into gardeners with its national cabbage growing competition. Kids not only get the experience to nurture and watch the plants grow, they also can cash in on the cabbage.
This year, Lillian Spieth, fourth-grader at Spring Lake Elementary in Payson, was chosen as the winner from Utah. She won a $1,000 saving bond to use toward education.
"I was really excited that if I get the $1,000 I could go to the college that I wanted to go to," Spieth said.
More than 11,400 kids competed in the Bonnie Plants Third Grade Cabbage Program. The students' teachers signed up for the program online, and third-graders take home a 2-inch plant at the end of the school year.
"It's OS cross or oversized cabbage," said Joan Casanova, spokeswoman for Bonnie Plants. "The intent was to provide the children with the variety that would be fun for them."
Spieth said she planted her cabbage at her aunt's house because the garden size there could better accommodate the large plant.
"I liked to check on the cabbage to see how it was growing," she said. "A week after we put it there, it started getting bigger."
Spieth's cabbage weighed in about 50 pounds, which is the second-largest ever grown in the Bonnie Plants program. According to Casanova, the 2011 Montana winner produced the largest cabbage in the history of the competition at 65 pounds.
Spieth nurtured the cabbage for three months during the summer.
"It needed quite a bit of water," she said. "Some days, it grew two inches taller."
She shared the cabbage with her family and cousins, and much of it went to her great-grandparents' goats, horse and chickens.
At the end of the growing season, each kid takes a picture with his or her cabbage and submits it to the teachers at the beginning of school year. The teachers then select which is the best in the class according to size and appearance.
Each class winner's name is put in a statewide drawing. Spieth's name was randomly selected by Larry Lewis, public information officer of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.
"The reason we do that is because the cabbages are very similar in size," Casanova said. "All the kids work hard growing their cabbages, so we want it to be kind of a luck-of-the-draw-based thing."
Spieth said she's letting the savings bond accrue money until she gets to college, which is Brigham Young University if her plan stays the same for the next eight years.
"I kind of want to go to BYU because they're my favorite football team," Spieth said.
Spieth's mom said there were other kids in the neighborhood eagerly growing the cabbage for the competition as well.
"I think it's really fun that Bonnie Plants does something like that," Miesha Spieth said. "I just think it helps [kids] be more confident in whatever they want to do."
Casanova said the competition is also a lot of fun for kids because as long as they water the cabbage and tend its needs, the plant likely yields good results.
"Growing a colossal cabbage may seem like a giant undertaking for little kids, but it's easier than you think," she said. "If they pay attention, they probably will get a pretty big cabbage."
The hands-on nature of the program also encourages kids to pursue gardening even after the competition ends.
"I think that 9- and 10-year-old kids, many of them have never gardened by themselves," Casanova said. "Planting vegetables engages the children."
Cabbage was chosen for the competition because it was the first plant sold by Bonnie Plants in 1918. Since then, Bonnie Plants has become the largest producer of vegetable and herb plants in North America.
In 2002, the cabbage growing competition took on the national stage. Forty-eight states participate yearly with the exception of Alaska and Hawaii.
"About 1.5 million kids participate every year," Casanova said. "It provides the children with a sense of pride and accomplishment, and for the lucky state winners, the beginning of an educational fund for college."
Casanova said she hopes the program instills confidence in the kids.
"They get this tiny plant and just can't wait to put it in the ground and hope it grows," she said. "It teaches them a sense of responsibility and nurturing…that they can garden and they can grow their own food."
Pointers for growing oversized cabbages
Let the sun shine • Six hours or more of full sunlight.
Survey your space • At least 3 feet on each side to spread out.
Supplement the soil • Work some compost into the soil, add vegetable fertilizer.
Water wisely • Gently water your plant at soil level with hose or watering can.
Tend to trouble • Keep weeds out of the cabbage patch.