One of this years display gardens at the San Diego County Fair.

One of this years display gardens at the San Diego County Fair.

I enjoy county fairs. I probably haven't missed one in 30 years. It's cheap entertainment, but it's the down-to-earth style and community spirit of a county fair that appeals to me the most.

There was a time when county fairs were exclusively a place for area farmers, gardeners and those in the agricultural community to show off the fruits of their labor — literally — and compete against their colleagues for blue ribbons and local bragging rights. A few simple rides and carnival games were included as a way to entertain the children while mom and dad were busy with the livestock, the produce and the apple pies.

The Orange County Fair is fun; I always go. I remember when the Orange County Fair offered an entire building devoted to flowers, garden displays and horticulture. Not so anymore. Now, for the true plant and garden lover it is the San Diego County Fair (formerly known as the Del Mar Fair). This Goliath of all of California's fairs stands above all others. The San Diego County Fair's flower and garden section is immense, showcased front and center, just inside the main gate. It beckons Orange County gardeners to make the one-hour drive south to seaside community of Del Mar.

Sure, there are carnival rides there, slicers and dicers, art exhibits and more junk food than just about anyone could possibly stomach. But it is San Diego's flower and garden displays that attract me, and some portion of the other 1,274,000 who visit every year.

To give some perspective of the San Diego County Fair's commitment to horticulture, consider this:

There are 20 fair awards given for the temporary landscape displays built.

There are 25 more landscape awards provided by private and public organizations.

The rose bloom competition alone offers 55 ribbons.

The dahlia bloom competition offers 51 more ribbons.

Orchid blooms compete for 24 ribbons.

Gladiolus blooms vie for another 24 ribbons.

And the garden stage schedule is nearly nonstop, with 75 programs and first-class speakers like Debra Lee Baldwin discussing succulent container gardens, Tom Del Hotal espousing the virtues of gardening with rare fruits, Ben Gill on proteas and their culture, Greg Rubin discussing native plant design, Jim Mumford explaining living walls and John Rader showing an assortment of new perennials for the garden.

My friend Jim Bishop is the assistant coordinator of the flower and garden portion of the fair and has been keeping me abreast of this year's preparations. He says the displays are terrific. With a theme of "Taste the Fun," the presentations have a special focus this year on edible gardening. Jim's been working tirelessly for weeks now to finish the displays, assemble the horticultural eye candy and coordinate the great lineup of speakers.

"I'm pretty much there every day from opening day until the end. I work until around 7 (in) the evening," says Jim.

The San Diego County Fair runs now through July 5 at 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar. For information, visit www.sdfair.com.