Her cabbage is a winner by a head

Program plants a seed for 9-year-old who gains honor for oversized cabbage

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When 9-year-old Victoria Miller of Brackenridge brought home a 3-inch cabbage plant in a plastic container in May, she wasn't fully aware of the big things that awaited her.

One of 32 students in her class at Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament School in Harrison, Victoria took part in a program offered by Bonnie Plants to teach third-graders in 48 states the responsibilities and knowledge of growing vegetables to maturity.

"After I got the plant home, our cat ate one of the leaves and chewed on another, and I didn't think it would make it," she said. "Even so, I planted it in a bigger pot and gave it a shot of Miracle-Gro. When I put it in the ground after it stabilized a couple of weeks later, it really took off."

And take off it did. The special OS Cross, or oversized cabbage, grew to 28 pounds and 3 feet in diameter by the beginning of September. It was enough to qualify Victoria for the $1,000 prize given each year to one student out of a pool of thousands across the U.S. Last year, in Pennsylvania alone, 19,526 third-graders in 873 classrooms participated in the program.

"We chose third-graders as participants because, at the age of 9 or 10, they're old enough to take on the responsibilities of caring for a plant and young enough to be engaged and excited about the project," said Joan Casanova, spokeswoman for Bonnie Plants, a national plant wholesaler based in Alabama.

When the cabbage plants are delivered to the schools in late spring, the drivers go into the classrooms and talk about planting and nurturing the plants.

At the beginning of September, parents are requested to take a photo of their child with the mature cabbage and submit it to the school, which, in turn, selects the best cabbage on the basis of size and appearance. The best photos then go to Bonnie Plants, where they're numbered. The winner in each state is determined by having the commissioner of agriculture select a number at random.

At Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament, third-grade teacher Eileen Pifer of Sarver had been involved with the project since it was launched at the school more than five years ago. Before retiring last year, she also was the person who picked the "best cabbage" using the measurements provided by the students' parents.

"When the plants are first handed out, the students have a lot of enthusiasm," she said. "But for the next three months, the students have to water, weed and care for the plants at home and check for bugs. To help them, they're given a chart that lets them monitor the plants each week. To be successful, the project needs the cooperation of the parents to supervise and encourage their child."

As this year's Pennsylvania winner, Victoria had some experience growing vegetables and flowers by helping her mother, Lucie, water the family garden.

"Although I helped out working in the garden in the past, this time I had the sole responsibility for taking care of the cabbage plant," she said.

Since the mature cabbages are edible, Victoria's 28-pounder ended up as the base for a lot of cabbage rolls and haluski, although Mrs. Casanova said most of the project's cabbages harvested across the nation are turned into cole slaw. The Millers also gave slices to neighbors.

"Luckily, I have another refrigerator in the garage, which helped keep the cabbage fresher longer," Mrs. Miller said.

For her efforts, Victoria is awaiting the arrival of her $1,000 U.S. Savings Bond.

With her appetite whetted by growing a prize-winning cabbage, Victoria said she plans to grow red raspberries next summer.

"I do like cabbage, but my favorite vegetable is corn on the cob," she said. "Oh, and I do like cherry tomatoes as well. All you have to do is pull off the stem and pop one in your mouth."

Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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