Georgia Trials Showcase Innovation

From breakthrough plants to sustainable practices, there was much to see at Dr. Allan Armitage’s trials at the University of Georgia (UGA) June 18, during an industry open house right before the Southeast Greenhouse Conference.

Nestled on a terrace surrounded by university buildings, the UGA Horticulture Gardens were planted 25 years ago to assess the performance of annuals and perennials in hot, humid conditions. Data on all plants are provided through the Web site, www.uga.edu/ugatrial. In addition to being a valuable resource for growers, garden center retailers, master gardeners, horticultural distributors and flower breeders from all over the world, the gardens are, first and foremost, a teaching tool.

“As a teaching facility, the garden allows students to learn about the myriad of annual and perennial species and to study the different growth habits, tolerances and uses of herbaceous material,” Armitage says. “Students can also learn about those elusive terms called quality and performance by viewing the good, bad and the ugly under garden conditions. And even if nobody ever visited, the trials have helped educate a whole army of dedicated student workers who plant, dig, weed, clean and worry about the trial garden. While the plants provide the color, the students supply the soul.”

The trials are self-funding through fees breeders pay to have their plants in the trials and through royalties collected through the Athens Select collection of plants Armitage has selected for exceptional heat and humidity tolerance. No money is provided to the gardens by the horticulture department or university.

Revolutionary Rudbeckia

One variety that captured a lot of attention is rudbeckia ‘Early Bird Gold’ from Dupont Nursery in Louisiana. It’s a sport of ‘Goldsturm,’ the landscaping staple for perennial rudbeckia. The difference is it’s naturally dwarf, requires no vernalization and is daylength neutral. Plants will flower earlier and longer, spring through fall versus just the typical stunning show in July and August. Daylength neutrality also allows it to be grown as a pot crop year round. Plants are available from tissue culture through Agristarts III.

Tropical Delight

In the new and unusual category, the collection of pineapple lilies (eucomis) drew a lot of interest as a tropical perennial hardy to Zone 7. Native to South Africa, the flowers start out looking like pineapples in shades of bronze, gold and burgundy and then become fragrant in bloom. Foliage is attractive, too, and fits in with the beefier-blades-of-grass look that phormiums and other accent plants provide, with an added bonus of pineapple flowers.

Striving For Sustainability

Armitage announced plans for the gardens at UGA to become 100 percent sustainable by 2009. Allied suppliers who have helped UGA with this direction include Ball Horticultural Co., the Blackmore Co./Ellegaard, Daniels Fertilizer, Bioworks and Organica BioTech. Efforts include eliminating plastics, reducing chemicals and releasing beneficial insects. “We are sustainable, not organic, and will use chemicals when appropriate,” Armitage says.

He says sustainability makes sense for the gardens because it:

  • Enriches environmental quality and the resource base for nutrients
  • Maintains UGA’s standard of excellent aesthetic design within the garden space.
  • Continues to be economically viable.
  • Stresses productivity
  • And enhances the quality of life for growers, landscapers and gardeners.

UGA is reducing water waste by planting in irrigation zones with plants with similar water requirements and using drip irrigation and mulch to reduce runoff and erosion. Containers and baskets have incorporated Terra-Sorb, a suberabsorbent hydrogel mixed into the soils to retain water.

For fertility, UGA used Daniels plant food’s greenhouse and landscape formulations and inoculated soil with Plant Growth Activator Plus microorganisms. Soil and tissue analyses assess nutritional efficiency. Fall cover crops will be planted as organic soil builders and tilled as green manure in the spring.

For pest and disease control, beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, green lacewings and praying mantids were introduced. Perimeter plantings of carrots, chervil, coriander, cloves, subclovers, nasturtium, parsley, alyssum and yarrow encourage beneficial insect populations. Organic pesticides, fungicides, miticides and algaecides will be used when needed. Purlverized shrimp shells will reduce nematode populations. Crop rotation, intercropping and companion planting will be another strategy.

Weeds will be controlled manually and with an organic herbicide derived from clove oil.

Plants were supplied in Ellepots instead of plastic pots.

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