Allan Armitage on Why Trials Are Critical in Perfecting Plants

University-of-Georgia trial gardensI was speaking at the University of Missouri last month with my colleagues, Dr. Michael Dirr (woody plant guru), Coach Vince Dooley (passionate gardener), and Natalia Hamill (Marketing Director, Bailey Nurseries). It was quite a motley crew. The audience was a mix of industry veterans and passionate gardeners, and the crowd tossed questions at us about trees, shrubs, and flowers from the moment we sat down. A number of the queries concerned the introduction of new plants, and many in the audience were curious about the length of time it took a new plant to get to the market.

I was able to speak a little about introduction protocols for annuals and perennials, and I had to admit that a number of plants have been introduced too early, and that a few were introduced without sufficient time to test their invasive tendencies.


However, every breeding company worth its salt is trialing potential new plants under lock and key around the country. These differ from public trial grounds in that everything is labeled with a number and trialed to cull out those plants that perform poorly in the ground, are disease susceptible, or produce few flowers. Even if they pass all the greenhouse tests, the plants may still be tossed. These trials are essential for the companies, so they can avoid introducing a dog to the industry. We have had our fair share of those and don’t need any more. While many of these lock-and-key trial grounds are under the sole auspices of the breeder, there are a few (too few) companies that contract with breeders to trial their possible introductions.

As I rambled on about some of the procedures, I couldn’t help but mention the most visible trials; that is, the public trial gardens run by universities and production companies. I say public in that they are open to landscapers, growers, breeders, and designers once or twice a year. They may be open to the public, as well, especially if the trial manager wants to enhance the visibility of the garden and obtain useful data from the public. Most of these gardens contain comparison standards and recently introduced material (labeled as cultivars), as well as those varieties that have passed the aforementioned private tests and likely will be introduced in the near future (labeled as experimental).

Trial Gardens Are Where the Rubber Meets the Road

These trial gardens are where retailers, landscapers, designers, and gardeners can see what is truly a better plant at the local level. This is where garden managers collect data on the garden performance and share them with the breeders. Here people learn which are the great plants, and let others know in talks, blogs, and garden and trade magazines. More importantly, this is where the industry and the university cement their relationships and together make the product and the end result (a better landscape, more sales, more success to the end user, and simply better cooperation) so much stronger. These trial gardens are not just pretty places; they are laboratories.

Such relationships require commitments from the breeders to support the gardens with funding and plant material and equal responsibilities from the gardens to produce useful and meaningful data. None of this is easy, but oh my, how much poorer we would be if such relationships disappeared.

To any who read this, get out and support those trial gardens. If people visit, pay attention, and use those data, the breeders and producers will do the same, and better products will be the result.

That never hurts.