Running trial gardens used to be the primary responsibility of university horticulture departments and breeders. But the number of growers who are maintaining their own trials is increasing. Greenhouse Grower talked to Al Gerace, owner of Welby Gardens in Denver, Colo., about why he thinks it is worth the time and effort to have his own trial garden.
GG: How long have you been doing trials on your own?
Gerace: We have had trials of our own since 1990. I determined in the early 1970s that what I was seeing at trials around the country and abroad were not necessarily the same kind of results we were getting in Colorado. In those days, breeding companies were breeding under their particular climactic conditions. When the Japanese were breeding for high humidity conditions, varieties were better under greenhouse growing conditions here. Impatiens bred in Gilroy, Calif., do better in our climate, because Gilroy is hot and dry in the summer, like our climate.
GG: How large are your trials?
Gerace: Our field trials are about 1½ acres, with 260 varieties. We trialed 669 varieties indoors. Some years we have included up to 1,200 varieties. With the consolidation of the industry and the fast-moving changes, some companies have had so much on their plates that they haven’t been able to get trial material to us in a timely fashion. We are hoping this year that things will settle down a bit and people will be getting back to business as usual.
GG: Maintaining your own trial gardens is a major undertaking. Why not just rely on university trials?
Gerace: Our outdoor conditions are very different than even Colorado State University in Fort Collins. We are truly out in an open field, not protected by grassy areas or city conditions. Our climate here in Colorado is very arid and soil conditions are very different from most other areas in the country.
GG: How do you communicate your results to your customers? How do you use the results within your operation?
Gerace: We hold an open house each year in late July or very early August. We invite our landscape, retail and young plant customers, breeders, other growers and industry members to attend. About 300 people usually visit.
We give each attendee 10 poker chips to vote for their favorite plants. We also grow trials plants in 8-inch pots and distribute 100 each to selected retailers to conduct their own evaluations at their location and let the public give input. We publicize our results on the internet and by eMail.
We also grow out another trial of the best items for spring promotion at about 20 participating retailers. We send a member of our staff to introduce these varieties to the public at these locations.
We use the results of our trials, along with the input from our open house and the public, to determine the marketability of these items and select what we plant to add to the line for the upcoming year. We also use the trials to educate our growers and sales team about the merits of each new introduction and to instill the particular characteristics of each breeding company to our staff.
GG: What benefits have you seen?
Gerace: It’s a great way to launch new varieties, keep the selection fresh and pique interest in our assortment of offerings. It helps maintain our leadership in the field, keep our customers and staff informed and make our own contributions to the evolution of this very dynamic industry.
GG: Do you have a long-term strategy down the road regarding your trials?
Gerace: We have taken many cues from the Spring Trials and we add new categories of plants as they become available. We are very interested in both seed and vegetative items: annuals, perennials, tropicals, succulents and cut flowers. Many cut flowers and foliage plants make excellent landscape items that provide a whole new dimension in American gardens.
We intend to expand our involvement with the better breeding companies, doing private as well as public trials with and for them. We like to be involved in their own trialing processes so we can have a better picture of future developments. We want to be ready to make whatever moves we need as new developments come along. For our direct exposure to retailers and the public, we plant to improve our labeling of the new items. We want to help the public become more familiar with the individual breeding companies so consumers are anxious for their future introductions. GG