Inside the plant trials: Are they worth it?

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Updated Feb 21, 2020
Photo: Longwood GardensPhoto: Longwood Gardens

Yesterday, we discussed the purpose of conducting plant trials and what the day-to-day operations look like for plant trial managers.

Today, let’s take a closer look at what plant trial managers need to look for when trialing plants, as well as why these trials are beneficial to the green industry.

What to look forTlc Part Two

When trialing, the Plant Trials Database says managers should consider traits such as the plant’s uniformity of flowering and habit, the number of flowers relative to others, the plant resistance to disease and insects, how unique it is, its height during the season and other additional data found during the trial.

According to Diane Blazek, executive director for All-America Selections (AAS), when talking with professional landscapers across the country, some of the breeding trends they’ve requested are plants that are disease and drought resistant, drought tolerant, longer flowering or more flowers, breeding perennials as annuals, novelty factor, reducing overall input costs, trialing plants that go together simultaneously to ensure they survive when planted in the same space, plants that require less deadheading and low-maintenance plants.

While it can be a little tricky to determine which trials are deemed “successful,” Matt Taylor, director of research at Longwood Gardens says there is typically a continual flow of graduating plants.

“We always have plants that are moving from our trial directly into the conservatory,” says Taylor. “Sometimes, a great success is when we have an evaluation and someone’s like, ‘Can I please just take that plant with me right now and put it on display?’ I guess you could say it’s always successful, but that level of success is really dependent on how many plants you look at in a given year.”

When trialing a plant, Taylor says Longwood will only take three into the trial, and they then pass that plant on if they need to propagate from it.

“A lot of the innovation you see in our horticulture displays in the gardens starts in research, and then more innovation comes into play when a designer takes that plant and designs an entire display around it,” says Taylor.

Ups and downs of trialing

Blazek says that one of the most difficult aspects of conducting plant trials is dealing with the weather, as the only predictable aspect of it is that it will be unpredictable. While it can prove to be frustrating at times, Blazek says she greatly appreciates the amount of industry support their organization receives when conducting these trials.

For Taylor, bringing a plant into a trial only to find that it can’t survive in its new environment is extremely difficult and discouraging. However, Taylor adds that he finds it most rewarding when they are able to find a plant that successfully graduates from the trial, moves into production, is loved by everyone and eventually becomes a staple crop in Longwood’s displays.

Why these trials are important  

Blazek says this year is already shaping up to be a big year for AAS, as they plan to continue to expand on their herbaceous perennials, and currently, she says there are a lot of entries in that trial.

She also says AAS plans to take their trialing online by using a new software system that will allow judges to use an app for entering data while in the field, which will immediately become available to AAS.

When asked why she believed plant trials were important for the industry, Blazek says they want their customers to be successful because if the customer is successful, they will continue to buy plants from the industry, which only benefits green industry professionals and gardens like AAS and Longwood.

Blazek adds that it’s also important to attend local trials in your area to see firsthand whether or not plants can survive and thrive in your area.

“It does nobody any good if something is put on the market and it hasn’t been tested and trialed,” says Blazek. “I feel like the entire industry has been very much in support of trialing for that reason. Trialing is a very important part of businesses’ decision making.”

Over the next few years, Taylor says Longwood hopes to invest a lot of time and attention into opening new display areas.

“I think of Longwood as one of the top public gardens in the world, and when people come to visit, they always see something that they’ve never seen before,” says Taylor. “The plant trials are one of the key drivers for that innovation that you’re going to see in the conservatory. When you come this spring and you come next spring, it’s going to be different, and the plant trials are part of the reason why.”

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