Wouldn’t it be brilliant if there was a school program that successfully encouraged kids to explore gardening, energized them to work outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine and possibly win money while they’re at it?

And if we could press our luck, wouldn’t it be admirable if the program was nationally coordinated and didn’t cost parents, schools or taxpayers a dime? Well, such a concept is a reality, and in 2018, 1 million third-graders from America’s 48 contiguous states competed to raise the best cabbage in their home state and win a $1,000 scholarship given away in each state, according to Bonnie Plants, the program’s founder.

Bonnie Plants provides for free these cabbage plants to each third-grader when teachers register their class in the program. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Plants / Special to The Forum
Bonnie Plants provides for free these cabbage plants to each third-grader when teachers register their class in the program. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Plants / Special to The ForumPhoto courtesy of Bonnie Plants / Special to The Forum

Bonnie Plants is a large wholesale grower of vegetable and herb plants in North America, and their logo is familiar on many plants sold nationally. In 1996, Bonnie Plants started its 3rd Grade Cabbage Program, which they describe as “a mission to inspire a love of vegetable gardening in young people and continue to ‘grow’ our next generation of gardeners.”

The company describes how each year Bonnie Plants trucks more than 1 million free cabbage plants to third-grade classrooms across the country. After teachers register their class with Bonnie Plants, a company representative contacts them and delivers the plants to the school at the start of the growing season.

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Each student gets their own cabbage to grow at home. The cabbage plants come with instructions, describing how kids can cultivate, nurture and grow giant cabbages, some bigger than a basketball and occasionally weighing more than 40 pounds. At the end of the gardening season, the teacher from each participating class selects the student who has grown the “best” cabbage, based on size and appearance.

A digital image of the cabbage and student is submitted online, and that student’s name is then entered in a statewide drawing. State winners are randomly selected by the Agriculture Commissioner in each of 48 participating states. Each student who wins the drawing for “best in state” receives a $1,000 scholarship towards education from Bonnie Plants.

Why does the contest feature cabbage? Cabbages were the first profitable crop sold by the company, started by Livingston and Bonnie Paulk in 1918, and cabbages can be grown successfully by kids and are less temperamental than some garden crops. The cabbages utilized for the program are the O.S. Cross variety, which is known for producing giant heads, making the process even more exciting for kids. To date, the largest cabbage grown in the program weighed 75 pounds.

O.S. Cross is an impressive old variety that was an All-America Winner in 1951, and on a personal note, I’ve enjoyed growing O.S. Cross cabbages myself many times in our own garden.

And the winners are

In North Dakota, Lucas Hankey, Kennedy Elementary, Fargo, was selected from 786 students participating statewide from 13 different schools. Lucas’ cabbage weighed 30 pounds.

Minnesota winner Michael Mirabella. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Plants / Special to The Forum
Minnesota winner Michael Mirabella. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Plants / Special to The ForumCourtesy photo / Bonnie Plants

In Minnesota, Michael Mirabella, Transfiguration Catholic School, Oakdale, was chosen from 12,086 participants from 177 schools. Michael’s cabbage weighed 10 pounds.

Third-grade teachers who wish to participate can find further information and register at https://bonniecabbageprogram.com/participate/.

Buy a calendar

Looking for a new wall calendar? Consider the 2019 Growing Together Gardening Calendar, which is graced with local gardening photos by Forum photographers and filled with nearly every "when-to" needed by gardeners tailored specifically for our Upper Midwest gardening region of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Montana. Order calendars online at https://www.inforum.com/2019gardencalendar.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at forumgrowingtogether@hotmail.com.