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For 15 years Dayna Justus collected bunches of trophies and plaques in every category possible competing in the Amateur Garden competition at the Sonoma County Fair. But after she won Best of Show in 2016 the Santa Rosa home schooling, 4-H mom got a very special offer.

Greg Duncan, the creative director of the fair’s showpiece Hall of Flowers, invited her to come inside.

For a garden competitor at the fair, creating a garden in the Hall of Flowers is a little like an actor leaping from community theater to Broadway. The work, the financial investment, the expectations and the exposure are amped up many times over.

Justus couldn’t believe her good fortune.

“It was,” she said, “my dream come true.”

“I felt so honored and so privileged.”

As a girl growing up in Santa Rosa she would enter animals in the fair every year.

“I was kind of a misfit. I was quieter, kind of shy. When I was done with my pig stuff I would come up here to the hall and go ‘wow.’ I’d sit inside and think, ‘Someday I would love to do this.’”

It took until she was 40 to realize her childhood fantasy and she wasn’t disappointed. Making it easier is the fact that the fair has always been a family affair with three generations of her family pitching in. And this year, when a longtime competitor had to drop out, her brother Shawn Husar stepped in late in the game to take over a garden on the opposite side of the hall.

The siblings however, have little rivalry. The whole Husar/Justus clan came together to collaborate on both gardens this year. Shawn, 37, provides the muscle and the construction know-how and older sister Dayna adds the plant expertise.

Hall of Flower gardens are judged on a Danish point system that permits multiple first place winners provided exhibitors meet a list of requirements. For the Hall of Flowers that includes ensuring that 40 percent of the garden be floral and no more than 20 percent in hardscaping.

Outside in the amateur garden area Justus’ son Alex, 13, now in his fourth year, and Husar’s daughter Jasmine, 11, are in training, having put together gardens in the Junior category.

Visitors to the fair will be transported to the coast by Justus’ 1,200 square-foot masterpiece of ingenuity, which includes a dock and a series of tidepools where water is rigged to whoosh in and out, spilling out of abalone shells. That earned her a Best Water Feature Trophy. She also took a First Place overall and an award for Best Use of Hydrangeas.

Daniel R. Gibbs, a professional landscaper who created a tour de force with his Coastal Charisma garden next to Justus, took Best of Show. The theme of this year’s show is “Seasons of Sonoma,” with each of 10 gardens representing a different part of the county’s diverse natural beauty.

Across the Hall, Husar’s Oak Meadows portrays another slice of Sonoma County’s beauty. A diesel mechanic who loves to make things, Husar built a Hobbit-sized cabin out of old fencing that, during garden construction, was equipped with a mini fridge filled with cold beer for refreshment.

But behind the scenes, putting together an 800- to 1,200- square-foot living garden that has to not only survive, but look good indoors for more than two weeks, is a major feat.

In times past the Hall of Flowers was a marketing showcase for professional florists and landscape contractors and designers. But now many of the exhibitors, like Justus and Husar, have other jobs and get their professional license just to compete in the Hall of Flowers and other shows. They don’t have a staff to move things and help with installation. With Justus and Husar, that means their mom Arley Nelson, their respective spouses, her two sons and his two daughters.

It’s a huge commitment that not just any avid green thumber could pull off.

Husar arranged to take three weeks off of work. Both he and his sister figure they invested about $2,000 out of pocket — $1,000 apiece in flowers alone, which they purchased as seconds from Bay City Flower. All of the trees were donated on loan from Urban Tree Farm in Santa Rosa, which allowed competitors to come “shop” for what they needed.

But Husar figures that he will make back his investment, including his time off work, in prize money. His garden took a First Place award, which means a payback of around $48 a square foot. And when the fair is over, exhibitors can sell their flowers at a big plant sale the morning after the last day to recoup some costs. This year fairgoers can grab up plant deals at the fair from 8-10 p.m. Aug. 12.

Some exhibitors also sell their props. But the regulars often hold onto them like a good investment, knowing that anything can be re-purposed.

The pilings that Justus used in her pier were socked away from a garden back in 2002 and stored on her one-acre property. Her brother had the forethought to grab up the old wood from a deck that Justus was removing from her home, and use that to build the dock.

“We used a bunch of succulents from our garden. We just keep restarting them and propagating. We love them when one breaks off and we get to plant it,” Justus laughed.

Exhibitors are frequently foraging, keeping their eye out always for materials that might be used in show gardens. Justus rescued the agapanthus featured in this year’s garden from the dumpster at Montgomery Village when the shopping center was redoing its plantings about five years ago. She went out to the beach several weeks before the fair and gathered driftwood. Son Alex, 13, who for two years in a row has taken Best in Show awards in the junior garden competition, has learned from his mom. His flowers, including hot royal blue lobelias, tons of petunias, pansies, snapdragons and coreopsis, were imperfect but good-enough throwaways from a local grower.

Husar’s wife, Emily, was able to source many flowers for his garden from a woman who purchased a small nursery that her mother had once owned. Emily Husar’s mom, Karen Boudreau, had done professional gardens for several years in The Hall of Flowers.

Once the fair is open and the awards handed out, the work doesn’t end there. Exhibitors have to come by every morning to check to make sure everything looks perfect. Anything looking peaked or dead has to be pulled and replaced.

Exhibitors learn from each other and experience, what works inside the hot and steamy environment of the Hall of Flowers and what doesn’t. Justus learned the hard way that crape myrtles that are so glorious during fair time, aren’t so happy inside the hall. She remembers last year looking at her completed garden with satisfaction and declaring it looked good.

“Then one of the other fairgoers said, ‘Well, except for that mimosa tree.” Justus hadn’t even noticed until she turned around in horror to see that tree had dropped its leaves everywhere

“We threw the tree in a the truck, wiped everything off as quickly as we could, put something else in and pushed something forward to hide the hole. Because you can’t have it look like something exploded all over your garden,” she said.”

All the while Justus is managing her garden, she’s helping her two kids with their animal entries. Alex alone has entered seven swines, three turkeys, three geese, five guinea fowl, one quail, four chickens and five rabbits.

When all is said and done the two families will wind up spending more than a month at the fair.

Justus said now that the garden is complete, she loves to take a break from the barns and head down to the Hall of Flowers and listen in unobtrusively to what people have to say about her creation. She said she sometimes learns from the feedback.

“It’s funny. They’ll point out things, like, ‘I really like this. or that. They’ll point out things that I didn’t even see from that perspective.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com.

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