Horticulture at the Iowa State Fair

This week marks the start of the Iowa State Fair!  Each year, amazing flowers, fruits, vegetables, and other horticultural plants are put on display in the Agriculture Building located in the center of the Fairgrounds. There is something horticultural to see any day of the Fair - the Rose Show, Dahlias, Bonsai, and exhibits from students in 4-H and FFA. Here are a few of my favorite horticulture highlights to catch at the Iowa State Fair!

The State Fair runs from August 10-20, 2023.  More information about all of the Horticulture and Floriculture Shows, including dates and times, can be found on the Iowa State Fair Website.

Blue Ribbon Cabbage at the Iowa State Fair
A blue ribbon cabbage at the Iowa State Fair

Best Tasting Tomato Contest

There is nothing like the taste of a garden-grown tomato.  Sometimes they taste so good you think they could win a prize!  Anyone can enter the Best Tasting Tomato contest and no pre-registration is required. Just show up with two tomatoes from the same plant (one to taste and one to display) on the first Saturday of the Fair and a panel of judges may just award you a prize.  They don't have to be pretty tomatoes, just tasty.  Learn more in this video from IowaPBS: Best Tasting Tomato 2021 Iowa State Fair.

Most Unusual Vegetable

Did you find two carrots in a "warm embrace"?  Or maybe a pepper with a prominent "nose"?  Sometimes we find the strangest and funniest things when we harvest the vegetable garden.  You can see all the fun anomalies gardeners across Iowa found this year in the Most Unusual Vegetable Contest. Entries are judged based on their quality as a vegetable, their uniqueness, unusual appearance, and humorous qualities.  It's pretty hard not to snicker at some of these entries!

Tomatoes at the Iowa State Fair
Tons of award-winning tomatoes at the Iowa State Fair
Unusual Vegetables at the Iowa State Fair
A humorous entry for most unusual vegetable at the Iowa State Fair

Plant Identification Contests

I love the challenge of identifying plants.  The Iowa State Fair has plenty of contests to allow you to take up that challenge too! 

All these plant identification contests are open to anyone who wants to participate with no pre-registration required.  Just show up and maybe you can earn bragging rights for the year!

Fruit, Vegetable, and Nut Identification Contest

Do you know what a kumquat looks like?  Jackfruit? Jicima? You can test your knowledge at the Iowa State Fair.  On the Wednesday of the fair, join others outside the Agriculture Building and take your guess for the chance to win a Hy-Vee gift card.  While there are always a few we are very familiar with, most of the quiz plants are pretty unusual.  Learn more about this contest in this video from IowaPBS: Fruit, Vegetable, and Nut Identification – Fair 2022

Plant and Flower Identification Contest

You can also test out your plant and flower identification skills.  On the first Friday of the fair, cuttings of plants, shrubs, trees, and bulb flowers are displayed and you can guess what they are for the chance to win bragging rights and a gift certificate!  On Tuesday, flower stems are displayed in the Agriculture Building for you to identify and win.  

Weed Identification Contest

Weed Id Contest at the Iowa State Fair
Could you identify all these weeds at the Weed Identification Contest?
Floral Designs at the Iowa State Fair
Beautiful floral designs can be found in the Agriculture Building.

To get adequate weed control, you must know what the weed is.  You can test that knowledge at the Weed Identification Contest conducted on the first Friday of the fair.  While a dandelion is pretty easy to spot, do you know the difference between crabgrass and quackgrass?  Thirty-five weeds grown by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and the Department of Agronomy will put that to the test.

Seed Pictures

The artistry of plants is put on display with this contest.  Colorful mosaics of seeds are created by youth and adults utilizing any type of seed or grain.  While many horticultural exhibits at the State Fair are only on display for a short time (usually only a couple of days), these artistic creations can be found hanging in the Agriculture Building for all 11 days of the fair.

Jumbo Veggies

Giant Pumpkin at the Iowa State Fair
A giant entry for the giant pumpkin contest

All of us have accidentally left a zucchini on the vine a little too long; now, you can actually get something good from that baseball bat-sized fruit!  The Jumbo Vegetable contest simply weighs the vegetable and the heaviest one wins! Visit the Agriculture Building to see monstrous cabbage, potatoes, zucchini, onions, kohlrabi, tomatoes, and more.  And don't forget to stop by and see the giant pumpkins on display outside the Agriculture Building - some of those pumpkins weigh more than half a ton!!  If you want to try growing one of these behemoth pumpkins next year, you can find more information in this article: Growing Giant Pumpkins.

Fairy Gardens

There is something magical and whimsical about a fairy garden.  Many Iowans show off their creativity by designing and planting their own miniature landscape for these enchanted creatures!  Each of these shallow containers contains at least five different plants and several man-made and natural accessories.  You can see these beautiful miniature gardens on the second Friday of the Fair in the Agriculture Building.

Discovery Garden

Discovery Garden at the Iowa State Fair
The Discovery Garden at the Iowa State Fair

My trip to the Iowa State Fair is never complete until I have had a chance to stroll through the beautiful Discovery Garden located outside the Agriculture Building.  This project, managed by the Polk County Master Gardeners, is a year-long effort.  The garden features colorful annuals and perennials, a small prairie, a relaxing water feature, a vine tunnel (a favorite spot for kids and kids at heart to run through), and much more.  If you see something in the garden you want to try at home, everything in the garden is labeled and there are always knowledgeable Master Gardeners stationed throughout the garden to teach you more!  Learn more about the Discovery Garden on their Facebook page.


Links to this article are strongly encouraged, and this article may be republished without further permission if published as written and if credit is given to the author, Horticulture and Home Pest News, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. If this article is to be used in any other manner, permission from the author is required. This article was originally published on August 8, 2023. The information contained within may not be the most current and accurate depending on when it is accessed.