It's fair to say that Frances Hunt knows about the hours and hours it takes to grow beautiful flowers, fruits and vegetables. "If you do a good job in the garden, it's time-consuming," said Hunt.
Over the last 40-plus years, Hunt has spent countless hours weeding, watering, planting and planning in preparation for entering her flowers, fruits and vegetables in the annual Delta County Fair, and she has a lot of ribbons to show for it. In 2015, she claimed more than 40 ribbons in open class flower judging alone, including for outstanding grower, best rose, best gladiolas, best annual, best overall flower, best small sunflower and oddest vegetable.
Frances and husband Roy moved to Hotchkiss in 1965. She began gardening while staying at home to raise their five children. After years of adding new beds and planting perennials, their house on Rogers Mesa is surrounded by gardens. She grows Sweet Williams in the bed named after Grandpa Jessen, and the lily bed offers a variety of blossoms in different sizes and colors. In the front yard, a large sign welcomes visitors to "Grandma's Garden."
In addition to tons of flowers, she always grows tomatoes and cucumbers. In the tomato bed, thick with fruit of all sizes and in every stage of ripeness, she points to a Golden Jubilee she hopes to enter in the largest tomato category. Blackberry and raspberry bushes grow among the beds. A peach tree cloned by her grandpa provides shade and is so thick with fruit this year that she worries its limbs might break; a green gage plum tree from Tennessee where her father is from is also loaded. "I don't know anything that's better," she said of the yellow-green fruit known for its confectionery flavor.
Growing up, the kids all worked in the garden, although some liked it more than others. Her grandkids also learned to garden, and most grow their own garden today, she said.
Hunt said she doesn't remember why she first entered her flowers in the fair, but she knows why she has returned year after years. "I like the competition," she says.
Much of her gardening is done with the fair in mind. This year she planted an herb bed, which she'll also use for cooking and drying. She also selects flowers and vegetables for use in dried floral arrangements. Her plot of okra, a member of the hibiscus family sometimes referred to as a lady finger plant, would make any Southerner proud, and the long, ridged seed pods will be used for dried arrangements. They're actually very beautiful dried, she adds.
As fair time draws near she assesses her garden to see what will be ready for the fair. The gladiolas have been slow to open, maybe because of the heat, but a few stems look just right. Rose buds are feeling the heat, too, as evidenced by brown spots on their petals. But the cool weather that arrived last week might have come just in time.
When Heritage Hall opens today, she plans to have multiple specimens ready for judging. Among them might be her orange gaillardia, which don't seem bothered by the heat, and her eye-catching blue and lavender Nigella blossoms, sometimes referred to as "love in a mist." She thought her pink Naked Lady lilies, named for their bare stalks, were too far along until a cluster burst from the ground a few days earlier. "I didn't expect them, but the timing is right," she said. "They just popped up."
And she'll have roses -- miniature, floribunda and hybrid tea in white, yellow, orange, lavender and burgundy. She also spotted a large light pink bud she hadn't noticed before. (She stops to explain that most of the rose bushes are gifts from her children.) To ensure they'll bloom for the judges, she starts cutting stems about two weeks ahead of time, puts them in warm water, and immediately places them in the refrigerator. It's one of the many tricks she's learned over the years.
Hunt said competing in the fair is very rewarding. She loves every competition and every ribbon she's ever won, and she has great respect for her competitors. Many judges have come and gone over the years, some of them she learned from and some of them she didn't quite agree with, but that's just part of the competition.
She doesn't have the energy to work in it as much as she once did, she said, but she's not about to quit. Now that the kids are grown and her grandkids visit less frequently, she is left to do most of the work, although two daughters still do what they can, and Roy helps with many of the outside chores.
Asked if she has a favorite flower, she picked gladiolas and dahlias, but then gave it some more thought. "It's hard to choose," she said. "I love them all."