The good thing about the small turnout at the National Capital Region Parks harvest festival was that almost everyone walked off with a prize.

The bad thing was, said 83-year-old urban gardener John Bute, who won five prizes, "there wasn't really any competition."

The harvest festival, sponsored by the Park Service's Green Scene division, drew only about 30 gardeners to the in-town county fair type competition.About 700 gardeners who raise crops in plots in ten garden locations on federally owned land in the city were eligible to compete.

For those who showed up it was a chance to swap garden information, recipes and laments about the troubles that beset urban gardeners, who sometimes worry about vandalism and how to hook up to city fire hydrants in the drought, as they pursue their avocation on land made available for free on a first-come, first-served basis.

The garden plots have been in use since the early 1940s when they were used as victory gardens, said Green Scene coordinator Franziska Hecht.

"I suppose it was in 1943, I started gardening," said Bute, of 117 Madison Street NW. Bute has gardened for the last 10 years in a park service garden near Blair Road and New Hampshire Avenue NW.

A former mens clothing salesman for Woodward and Lothrop for 40 years, Bute said he started gardening on the advice of his doctor, who told him to get outside more. "I get as much out of gardening physically as I do in vegetables," he said. "I can outwork most of those 60-year-old men around me."

Bute's Silver Queen corn was the lone entry in the corn category, but Bute had nothing to fear from competition. "It's perfect," said Charles Thomson, of Kensington, vegetable chairman of the National Capital Area Federation of Garden Clubs, who was one of the judges.

Thomson and Henry E. Allen of Bethesda, a garden consultant, who also served as a judge, gave the three flawless ears of ivory colored corn a perfect rating of 20, giving Bute the grand prize in the competition. Three tomatoes grown by Bute scored a 19, winning another first prize blue ribbon for Bute.

Julian D. Branch, a retired Army major, who also gardens at Blair Road, won prizes in the exotic category for sugar cane and peanuts. "They told me that they wouldn't grow up here, but I made liars out of them," he said.

"South of here it's molasses. Further south it's lasses, and in Pennsylvania and north it's sorghum," he said, to almost anybody who asked him what the sugar cane was. Branch said he will boil down the extracted juice from the cane to make molasses.

"There's three things they use to make sugar out of in the United States," he told a younger onlooker. "Molasses, beets - out west, and maple syrup. You've got to be a real Yankee to know anything about maple syrup," he said.

Martha Hughes, who lives at 740 13th Street SE, and gardens in Ft. Dupont Park, won a first prize for cherry tomatoes. She thought she might have done well with her onions if she had entered them in the root crop category, but she had cooked them with squash instead, she said.

Another near miss was Robert Williamson, of 24 Van Buren Street NW, who manages the gardens at 8th and Peabody Streets NW. "I had a zucchini twice that size," he said, pointing to the lone entry. "And I had two Better Boy tomatoes - huge things," he said.

Because there had been so much theft from the garden plots he had carefully tried to camouflage the vegetables with leaves and grass clippings, he said. The day before Saturday's judging, when he went to pick them, they were gone anyway.

Besides gardening information, contestants swapped opinions about the cause of the small turnout, down from about 150 the previous year. "People are on vacation," said Williamson. "Right after the Fourth of July, you'd have everybody."

"They ought to move it up another couple of weeks," said Bute. "So many people don't know how to garden. I get two or sometimes three crops of some things," he said. Other gardeners don't follow up after an initial planting, so they don't have anything to show by the time August rolls around, he said.