Preston girl selected as state winner in giant cabbage growing contest

Preston – Isabella Ruta jumped off the school bus one day last May holding a 2-inch pot with the fledgling leaves of a cabbage plant protruding from the dirt.

“I asked dad if he could help me plant it,” now a 9-year-old fourth grader at Preston Veterans’ Memorial School, recalled.

Together, Isabella, her father, Dan and mother Linda Ruta found a large pot, collected rich loam and peat moss from the woods behind their home, and what Isabella called the key ingredient, manure from the family’s flock of 16 pet chickens.

By Sept. 28, Isabella could barely drag the pot with the sprawling basketball-sized cabbage to the center of the lawn for the photo they would send to third-grade teacher Lisa Demarco. Fittingly, chicken Orphy – a Buff Orpington breed – can be seen in the background.

Isabella was the only PVMS third grader to submit a photo in the National Bonnie Plants’ Third Grade Cabbage Program contest in 2018, teacher Lisa Demarco said.

Bonnie Plants annually distributes cabbage O.S. Cross – O.S. for oversized -- seedlings each spring to more than a million third graders in the lower 48 states, inviting them to nurse and nurture the sprouts into giant cabbage heads with 3-foot diameter outer leaves.

Veteran vegetable gardeners, the Rutas put their experience to the task. They first put the pot on the front porch for strong spring sun. Then Isabella moved it to the side of the house and dad protected it from deer using a combination of fencing and lawn chairs.

In the heat of summer, they hauled the plant indoors, pushing aside the furniture in the breakfast nook, where it would get both strong sun and cool air from the central air conditioning. Then back outside.

When tiny bugs showed up, Isabella dragged the pot to the yard, where the chickens did their part, picking the bugs off the plant while leaving the growing leaves intact.

Isabella watered the plant every day and culled weeds and the yellowed base cabbage leaves.

After submitting the photo on Sept. 28, the Rutas forgot about the contest and turned the more tender center cabbage leaves into golumpkis, stuffed cabbages, a favorite dish for the Polish family.

Then on Dec. 30, a voicemail from a woman with a thick southern accent said she had wonderful news and asked Isabella’s parents to call her. Isabella was outside riding her ATV with her brother, Zachary, 15, a sophomore at Norwich Free Academy.

Linda Ruta called back, and by the time she finished telling the story of how the family spent the summer coaxing the cabbage to grow and thrive, both women were laughing and crying on the phone. Mom called to Isabella in the yard.

“I screamed way too loud!” Isabella recalled.

“Congratulations Isabella! I am so pleased to inform you that you have been selected as the 2017-18 Connecticut State winner of the National Bonnie Plants’ 3rd Grade Cabbage Program contest!” the Jan. 4 confirmation letter from Jenny Moorer, Bonnie Plants program director said.

Isabella’s entry was selected at random by the state Department of Agriculture from the 4,487 state participants as the state winner. She will receive a $1,000 scholarship as the top state prize.

Isabella had fans throughout the summer as well. Archie and Joyce Plante, neighbors and surrogate grandparents to Isabella and Zachary, would ask every day “how’s the cabbage coming along?” When Isabella won the state prize, the Plantes sent a congratulations card and added another $20 to her prize.

“Of course, it’s nice to have the money,” Dan Ruta said of the $1,000 prize. “But we just did it for the fun.”


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