PALMER - Scott Robb gives his giant cabbages all a plant could possibly want: good soil, water, regular fertilizing and, on hot days, air conditioning. That's right. Air conditioning.
This year, Robb, a fastidious farmer who vacuums excess water off his plants' leaves to keep them from rotting, added one more trick to his growing repertoire.
He drilled holes in plastic pipe, laid it under his cabbages and hooked the whole thing up to an air compressor. The result: A gentle fanning breeze that keeps his cold-loving crop cool on even the hottest days. The effort, he hopes, will pay off with a prize-winning cabbage at this year's state fair in Palmer.
"It's called trial and error," he said. "If you don't try it, you won't know if it works."
A former North Slope worker, Robb is among several Matanuska-Susitna Borough gardeners who regularly compete for top prizes in the giant vegetable contests at the state fair, which starts Aug. 21.
The only reward in most cases is bragging rights and a blue ribbon. The exception is the giant cabbage contest, which pays the winner $2,000. But money is not what drives most growers, said fair marketing director Dean Phipps. Nor is it putting food on the table: The oversized cabbages' huge, tough heads are about as tasty as chewing sandpaper.
Just trying to grow a cabbage bigger than a boulder is motivation enough.
The first giant cabbage contest in Alaska, in 1941, was won with a 23-pound entry. Now the state record tops 105 pounds.
"I think it's like the 4-minute mile," Phipps said. "(For) each person it's sort of, 'What is the barrier? Where's the limit?' "
Robb, who is recognized by Guinness World Records for the planet's biggest rutabaga and kohlrabi, admits he's obsessed with growing oversized crops. His dream is to one day grow the world's biggest cabbage, an honor currently held by a Welshman who grew a 124-pounder in 1989.
But with about a month to go before the state fair, he doesn't have much time. The plants, which are just now approaching peak proportions, can still fall victim to any number of ailments.
Maggots can chew up roots. Winds rip delicate leaves. Moose can tear crops to shreds.
Worse yet are the self-destructing plants. Pushed to grow too fast, crops like turnips and cabbage can literally burst apart like a seam ripping on a too tight pair of pants.
"They just start to crack open," Robb said. "Once it starts, they're pretty much done."
The secret to success in many cases starts before the plants are even in the ground, growers say. The right seeds are key.
"You're not going to get a thoroughbred race horse by starting with a Shetland pony," he said.
Still, every grower has his or her own style.
Barb Everingham, a Wasilla woman who holds the state record for giant cabbage at 105.6 pounds, says she stuck to the basics with her plants, rejecting tips such as dousing them with sugar water or injecting solutions into the stalks. In fact, she decided to grow cabbages only after being hired at the gardening center at Wal-Mart. Everingham stopped competing in 2001 when she "retired" to focus on building a cabin in Talkeetna.
Robb's garden near Palmer is filled with giant vegetables, including melon-sized turnips, a 4-foot-tall cauliflower plant and a celery plant 5 feet tall and 2 feet wide.
He shields his plants from the wind with plastic sheeting and feeds them 80-degree water pumped from his house. He beefed up moose security this year by surrounding his garden with a 110-volt electric fence. He figures he's probably spent hundreds of hours on his crops.
"It's an enjoyment," he said. "I don't have a snowmachine. I don't own a jet ski, four-wheeler or a boat. Summertime rolls around and my primary focus is in the garden."