The Test Gardens at Metrolina Greenhouses were established about 30 years ago in Founder Tom VanWingerden’s driveway. Back then, says Metrolina’s Director of Research and Development Dr. Mark Yelanich, the purpose was solely to see how plants performed, and the trials grew from there, eventually locating to the 5-acre plot where the Test Gardens reside today.
For 15 years, Metrolina Greenhouses has hosted summer trials in Huntersville, NC, open to all members of the horticulture industry, to showcase the performance of the newest varieties coming on the market after introduction at California Spring Trials. Viewing these new offerings under the Carolina-blue sky, often in blistering heat and humidity (though not really this year), provides the industry with an accurate and objective look at how the newest genetics compare to industry standards.
The 2017 Test Gardens at Metrolina featured some new developments, including the 1,000 feet of newly constructed pergolas running the length of the gardens, to provide an ideal showcase for the 228 2-gallon hanging baskets planted with breeder combinations.
“We never really had a good place to put our combos, so finally we got that pergola built, and it’s worked out well and we’re really happy with it,” Yelanich says. “We grouped all the combos by dominant color, and were able to get good data on their performance, so the pergola is now a very powerful tool to screen new combos.”
More than 2,000 varieties were evaluated at the trial gardens overall in both ground beds and three-quart pots, including 1,231 annuals and 771 perennials, of which 476 were carried over from 2016 for a second-year evaluation. Find the data at metrolinagreenhouses.com/sites/testgardens.
The process starts in November, when Metrolina’s Trial Manager Lida Sladkova and her team send invitations to about 84 different breeding companies to ask them to send all of their new items, current performers, and anything they want to showcase, including combinations. In the 5-acre plot, Yelanich says the team is able to fit all of the new items, and also manages to provide the current standard that Metrolina grows for each genus in most cases.
But while the Test Gardens are certainly important from a customer success standpoint, there are other factors considered in adopting new varieties. The operation needs to know if there is enough quantity of an item available in the supply chain, and if growers can produce it easily without expensive inputs. With good relationships between the operation and plant breeders, Metrolina starts trialing many varieties well ahead of the broader market introduction, providing confidential trials in the research and development test house, then running pot trials, and for perennials, overwintering varieties. Metrolina also runs store tests to see how a variety looks at retail and if it gets purchased. The operation’s research arm, Home Garden Panel, tests varieties to see if consumers will buy it through the dozen or more focus groups and surveys it conducts annually.
“All of those things are going all the time,” Yelanich says. He points to Argyranthemum ‘Beauty Yellow,’ SunPatiens impatiens, and the Cannova canna series as examples of varieties that found their footing in the marketplace with help from Metrolina’s Test Gardens. And not every new variety displaces its standard, but sometimes there are superstars, like Celosia ‘Dragon’s Breath’ and ‘Sunfinity’ sunflowers, he says.
The operation will choose a few annual and perennial genera to test each year, as well, based on market need. This year, it’s marigolds, perennial dianthus, and lavender. Last year tested verbena baskets, hostas, and heucheras.
Consumer Panel Invites Public Tour
For the first time since the trial gardens opened, Metrolina opened the grounds to the public, inviting 200 consumers via Facebook to an open house and tour. Thinking perhaps 30 people would show up, the grower operation ended up “selling out” of the free tickets a week before the event, and a waitlist was established for extra tickets.
“This was as much a learning tool for us as it was for the community,” says Brie Craig, Director of Consumer Research. “While we wanted to inform the public about who Metrolina is and what we do, we mostly just wanted to share our garden with them and get their opinions. They were naturally curious about the company with regard to its size, production, and sustainability, but they also had a lot of questions about the plants in the garden, as well as about plants in their own garden.”
Metrolina’s consumer research arm, the Home Garden Panel, “uses qualitative research to guide its quantitative research projects,” Craig says, with a goal to keep learning about the gardener and making sure never to become too far disconnected from the average customer.
“We listen for key words or phrases, observe general attitudes and trends, and note common questions that come up repeatedly through the day,” Craig says. “We then take this information and run it through our qualitative panel to either confirm or disprove our findings with a national audience.”
Participating industry partners who support the Home Garden Panel and its research were invited to participate in the open house. Some brought product samples to look at and discuss, others asked and answered questions about their planted materials, and most followed the tours to observe the interaction and discussion.
So what was one of the key insights the Home Garden Panel gleaned from this interaction with consumers?
“Gardeners are hungry for information,” Craig says. “The guided tour was peppered with questions, usually centered on care and maintenance. Once they completed the tours, many people sought out additional advice and information from the industry attendees.”
This year the Test Gardens also included inspirational display beds for the first time, made from items already in stores, Craig says.
“These display beds were a big hit among community members, many of whom snapped photos to use as reference when working in their own gardens.”
Craig adds that while the event was set up as a learning tool for the industry, it also helped Metrolina Greenhouses generate some inspiring community ties.
“The outpouring of interest and enthusiasm was astonishing and truly a privilege to be part of!”
Click here to learn how Young’s Plant Farm uses its trial gardens to engage consumers.
Click here for a quick look at Sakata’s Clemson landscape trial.