Still in its first year, The National Plant Trials Database is a repository for trial results from all across the U.S. Here’s a look at how it started and where it’s going.
November 7, 2012
When great minds think alike, great things happen. The new Plant Trials Database is an example. Launched just last year, the goal is to consolidate information from the many trial gardens across the U.S. in a database that can be easily viewed and analyzed.
The brainchild of three industry leaders: Allan Armitage, Greenhouse Grower columnist and professor emeritus of horticulture at the University of Georgia, Diane Blazek, executive director of All-America Selections (AAS) and Timothy Howard, president of Clarity Connect — the development of the database is a solution to a need for consistency and easy access to information on trials results.
While not yet available to growers, the database allows breeders and trial managers to quickly see results from multiple trials and evaluate varieties.
“I had been wanting to do something where plants trialed in different locations can be easily viewed by anyone — certainly the breeders who pay money to get plants in the trials and by other trial gardens who might be interested,” Armitage says. “A number of years ago I talked to a couple of people in the South — in Tennessee and Dallas — and said, ‘Let’s just put our links on each other’s sites.’ We did that for awhile, but it never went any further. But about a year and a half ago, we said, ‘It’s time to really do this.’ So I started writing some people to find out what we could do to really get this going.”
Armitage found out he wasn’t the only one who saw the need. “Diane Blazek wrote me and said, ‘Someone told me you’re interested in doing a national trials site. It turns out we’re talking about that also at AAS.’ So we decided to do it together,” he says.
Blazek, who had begun working on the database idea in response to breeders who had asked for it at a meeting earlier that year, says, “That’s what I love about this industry — instead of competing, we said there was no need to make more than one — we’ll just work together.”
Connecting AAS to the project seemed natural, Blazek says. “Somebody needed to manage the program, and we’re the neutral party,” she says. “Our breeders were telling us to do this. We’re here to serve the industry, so for me, I just felt this was a very important role for us to play. We have relationships with so many of the trial gardens already, so that was also an easy step.”
Howard’s company, Clarity Connect, develops websites for the green industry, and he was asked to help design and construct the site.Functionality and consistency of presentation were of prime importance. The dozens of trial gardens provide their information in many different formats, including websites, Excel spreadsheets, downloadable PDFs, Word documents, etc., which was one issue. Another is
that some gardens collect data twice during the season, and some collect it three times. The types of information collected also may vary.
“We wanted a breeder to be able to get in and see how a variety did in multiple locations and make it easy for them,” Howard says.
How It Works
A trial garden gives a rating from zero to five for each plant. “Zero is dead and five is fabulous,” Armitage says. “This way, if a breeder sees that the plant was a five in Georgia and a two in Minnesota, maybe it’s a better plant for the South.”
Each plant’s ratings are averaged as well, so it is easy to see how it performed overall.
The Plant Trials Database is not intended to replace the individual trial gardens’
reports and websites.
“We’re starting with basic information and continuing to grow it,” says Blazek. “We’re not saying this is the only site and you’ll never have to refer to the other reports anymore. But it’s a good quick view, and you can make comparisons on the site.”
The websites of all the participating trial gardens are included on the Plant Trials Database, so it is easy to find more detailed information.
Blazek says they wanted to make it as easy as possible for trial managers, but sometimes participating in the database required some adjustments, such as changing their rating scale in order to be consistent with ratings from the other trials.
Another issue was making sure the names of plants were entered correctly, as Begonia boliviensis ‘Santa Cruz Sunset’ would not be recognized by the computer as being the same as Begonia ‘Santa Cruz Sunset.’ To maintain consistency, only breeders can enter the names of the plants.
Breeders Get Behind The Idea
“We have a pretty good list of breeders participating — we have most of the major players now,” Howard says.
Breeders pay $3,000 to sign up and then $1,200 per year after that. The money is used to support website development, and Armitage says ultimately he would like to see some go back to the trial gardens. A company can submit one variety or 500, but they should be plants that are actually being tested at one or more of the trial garden locations.
“I would think, given the cost, even if you’re not one of the major breeders, if you have 10 or 15 new plants it would be money well spent,” Howard says. “By submitting your plants, if you send them to 15 different trial locations, you can get consolidated reports.”
Currently, only breeders and trial garden managers can log on and access the database, but that may eventually change.
“We will discuss in year two and beyond what other audience would benefit from accessing the trial results,” Howard says.
Because the database has only been in use for a year, Howard says they have been listening carefully to users and tweaking as needed.
“Originally, we didn’t think of adding how it was grown,” he says. “But now we’ve added a ‘where planted’ category. In other words, is it in the ground, or a container or a hanging basket. People need to be able to understand the difference between those. I want to schedule a follow-up webinar with breeders and trial garden managers to look at the pros and cons of this year and what needs to be done next year,” Howard says.
“We’re going to try to get more breeders and trial gardens to participate and continue to build it and make it more robust and available,” Blazek says. “We want to grow it, expand it and listen to both the breeders and the trial managers at this point. When the actual number of users starts to expand, we’ll listen to them and continue to make it something that will be very useful to different segments of the industry.” GG
Robin Siktberg is Editor of Greenhouse Grower. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org