When Kathryn Bowers entered her first Plant City Garden Club flower show, Interstate 4 was a zippy new shortcut and strawberries ran about 50 cents a quart at Parkesdale Farms, which didn't yet have its famous market or shortcake.
"I entered a design placed in my mother's little straw hat as a container," says Bowers, then a mother of three young boys. "I won Best of Show."
Today, the 78-year-old avoids I-4 — too scary — and strawberries will run her $2.98 a quart at Parkesdale Farm Market. Her baby turned 50 in December.
But some things don't change.
The garden club still hosts its annual show and competition and, if you visit the Florida Strawberry Festival, you'll find Bowers' entries among the dozens of competitors for the 49th consecutive year.
The festival has expanded to massive proportions since it began in 1930, with more than 525,000 visitors last year and music headliners including multi-Grammy Award-winning Jimmy Sturr and classic rockers Styx this year. So club treasurer Jan Griffin marvels at its continuing embrace of her group's homespun competition.
"It's just wonderful," says Griffin, chairwoman of the 2014 Horticulture Show. "We take up commercial space that they could be getting a lot of money for. They pay for the ribbons and all the prizes."
There's no fee to enter, although you're too late for this year. Amateur gardeners who live in Hillsborough County may enter up to 10 plants in 22 divisions, adult and youth. They compete for ribbons and $200 in prizes.
Don't think you can't enter because your plant lacks luster, Griffin says.
"If it's not good enough, I'll tell you."
For 2014, the exhibit has moved into a new building where it shares space with the ribbon-festooned homemade jams, cakes and quilts that comprise the Neighborhood Village.
Griffin says organizers told her the show got this nice salute because "this is why the festival started — to showcase what the community's all about: agriculture."
When Bowers first entered the contest in 1966, the club called it Harvest Tea and threw the party in its clubhouse. First-place won silver dinnerware donated by the former First Federal Savings & Loan.
Bowers still has her platter.
Three years later, the show joined the Strawberry Festival, moving into its newest building.
"They had a picture of us on the front page of the (Plant City) Courier," Bowers says.
She kept that paper.
Back in the day, she says, the club, founded in 1948, was cliquish.
"The flower show was strictly the big-name women in Plant City. To become a member, you had to have two people to recommend you, and then there was a vote if the members wanted to let you in," she says.
"Today, we welcome everyone."
Attracting new members is just one reason the 65 existing ones continue to arrange, judge and man the exhibit, Griffin says.
"It's a lot of work," she says. "We have to have two people sitting at the booth for three 4-hour shifts every day. I put a 40-pound weight limit on the plants, because I have to move them around."
They also put forth the effort to grow new gardeners, especially children. Throughout the year, club members visit schools, teaching the kids about plants and even giving them their own to groom and enter into the contest.
"They don't care what ribbon they get. They're just so excited to get a ribbon," Griffin says. "We have kids who participate for several years, and we have some who've told us they started gardening because they got a plant."
Bowers joined the club because she loved floral design and wanted to learn more about growing her own blooms. She learned — and she has the top ribbons in every category to prove it.
They all hang in her study.
Nowadays, the contest includes only live plants, no floral arrangements. That's fine with Bowers. Coming up with more and more creative designs can be nerve-wracking.
"My best one was that first one, my mother's little straw hat," she says.
Some things, you just can't improve upon.
Reach Penny Carnathan at [email protected] Read more about Tampa Bay gardens on her blog, digginfladirt.com. Join the plant chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt, and follow her on Twitter, @DigginPenny.