Good to Grow: State Fair of West Virginia in full bloom

As published in the Charleston Gazette.

County fair, school fair, heck, “My Fair Lady.” I love a fair, but nothing is quite like a state fair. It’s August, which means I’m headed to Fairlea, home of the fairgrounds and the State Fair of West Virginia, which runs Aug. 8-17.

I begin planning my adventures just after the July fireworks. When the day is finally here, I arrive early in the morning. My first stop is to find an open pizza vendor (pizza for breakfast — don’t judge me). That hot cheesy slice is the way I have started my Fair Day for years.

Then I’m off to immerse myself in all things West Virginia grown and made. I meander through the photography exhibits, the needlework, then pause to take in the many quilts that hang from the ceiling. I know the skill and time invested in each of these quilts. They are works of art. This building is air-conditioned, so it is also a good place to visit in the afternoon.

But you can guess where I’m headed: the West Virginia Master Gardener’s Demonstration Garden. I am lucky enough to have volunteered here on the first Saturday of the fair for several years. I have so much fun! You can find me working in the Children’s Garden, “digging for bugs,” and chatting with families — really, just pretending I’m a kid for the day. If you stop by the bug dig, you will notice the pergola covered with a clematis vine. By the time of the fair, this vine has bloomed so what you are seeing are fabulous seed pods.

The Children’s Garden is just one section — or “room” — of this garden. There is the Memorial Garden and the Zen Garden. With concrete paths throughout — thanks to funding from the West Virginia State Master Gardener Association and lots of hard work from the Greenbrier Valley Master Gardeners Association — the garden is now accessible to everyone.

Here might be the place to give a huge shout-out to Willa and the Greenbrier Valley Master Gardeners. This garden is their labor of love, tending it year-round and making sure it peaks mid–August, just in time for all of us to enjoy.

The 15-year-old garden has more than doubled since its installation, and thank goodness. Now there is space for the prettiest herb garden I have ever seen. I even copied their pea gravel ground cover for my herbs at the little house on the big hill. As you look around, don’t worry about knowing the names of plants — most are labeled, and there are lots of Master Gardener volunteers close by to answer questions.

One of the most frequently asked questions is about the plant with the large red blooms. This is the Lord Baltimore hibiscus, and it is a showstopper. Pink diamond hydrangeas stand tall and regal. The nearby swath of tall colorful zinnias provides the perfect backdrop for photos.

Yes, everyone brings a camera to the fair. Gardens, animals and blue ribbons — I can’t imagine a day with more photo ops.

Speaking of animals, you have to tour the barns. It’s cooler in the shade, and the animals are so handsome — plus they have fans to keep them cool. For many, this is a chance to see cows, bulls and pigs up close.

You may even see freshly groomed sheep or goats styling the latest fashions. Seriously, they are dressed in fun jackets to keep them clean before showing. Make it a point to stop by the birthing center. Cows are giving birth almost every day, and who doesn’t love a newborn?

Of course there are bunnies and llamas, horses and chickens. Headline concerts, rides and games, but let’s get back to the garden. This is a teaching garden. West Virginia University Extension agents hold annual pruning classes that are open to the public. During the Fair, Dr. Mira Bultatovic-Danilovich of WVU Extension is often near the garden, and there is no better resource. She is always helpful and has been a go-to source of information for me many times.

Mid-afternoon, I like to take an air-conditioning break and head to the WVU Extension building, across from the garden. Inside are all things WVU. One of my favorites is to “Label Mabel” or name the parts of a cow. I don’t eat much meat, so this is always a fun anatomy reminder. You will also find recipes, posters and other swag.

In front of the Demo Garden, there is large tent filled with resources and information to help educate us about gardening. Don’t let the fencing keep you from wandering out back. Here, you will find waist-high raised beds, funded through a WVU “Green Thumbs and Healthy Joints” Grant and built by Greenbrier Valley Master Gardeners.

You may see several heirloom vegetables such as beans and artichokes, and the orchard. This year, the high tunnel will have filled with West Virginia native plants and is being maintained by the Greenbrier County WVU Extension Service. Another chance for photos.

There are lots of choices for lunch, and let’s pretend calories don’t count at the fair, so be sure to grab homemade doughnuts or a cinnamon roll — delicious! Maybe fresh-squeezed lemonade is more our style. They have that, too.

Come to the fair, bring the family and take it all in: the food, the crafts, the animals and, of course, the garden. If you happen to be there the on the first Saturday, stop by and say hi. See you at the fair!