The Penn State Flower Trials, held at the Southeastern Agricultural Research and Extension Center, or SEAREC, have long been a useful tool for commercial growers and nurseries — and home gardeners benefit.
Each year, under the direction of Penn State Extension Horticulture Educator Sinclair Adam, and with the help of SEAREC Director Alyssa Collins and local Master Gardeners, research farm staff grow more than 700 annuals. and 200 perennials in order to assess the plants several times during the growing season. They then provide feedback to companies submitting plants. This gives commercial growers the opportunity to see how new cultivars perform under standard conditions.
Bidding companies specify whether they want their plants to be grown in the ground, in pots or hanging baskets, in the sun or in the shade. Sometimes, Adam said, companies send out the same cultivars three or four years in a row, while other companies rarely send out repeats.
During the garden trials, each week, trainees obtain soil pH and electrical conductivity (EC) data from selected plants to help Adam and other trial garden staff make decisions about crop-specific changes in pH or food. Early morning and afternoon waterings, 20 minutes each time, help maintain optimal plant growth.
To contain possible disease, one company’s geranium submission, for example, is planted with a “spacer crop” of another plant variety between it and the next company’s geranium submissions, Adam said. . That way, for example, if xanthomonas, a bacterium, pokes its ugly head into the bed of geraniums, the other geraniums are safe and must not be contaminated, he said.
The blue flags staked in the plants represent varieties that have scored well so far this growing season. Adam inspects and assesses each factory for the first time around the first week of July. The blue flag therefore signifies a strain that has achieved a rating of 4.88 out of 5 stars or better. The process takes him several hours, as each plant takes about two minutes to assess. He places the note directly on an iPad computer which uploads directly to the web page at agsci.psu.edu/flower-trials for anyone to view. Overall, Adam will complete four assessments comparing plants over the summer, ending around the first week of September to arrive at a final overall score for each plant submission.
This year, Adam led several in-person tours through the flower trials that brought in growers, gardeners and green thumbs to hear him talk about this year’s horticultural harvest.
Greenhouse grower Mark Adams, of Poughkeepsie, New York, took part in a tour. He and his wife, Sue, own and operate Adams Greenhouse. Their business includes 5 sheltered acres. The couple went to the SEAREC test gardens, an annual hike for them, in search of new varieties to grow for the next year, Adams said.
“You have to see them (in person),” he said. “If you want to look for a red (flower), you can’t tell from the catalog, you have to see it. To actually see the true, true color, you can’t see it in a photo – it’s just not the same thing.
Spectacular blooms that are worth the detour
This year, Suntory Flowers’ bracteantha ‘Granvia Gold’ piqued Adams’ interest, he said, noting that the couple were looking for plants they could sell in the summer at their garden center. Spring offerings are plentiful, so the pair was looking for something that would still be seeing further into the summer.
With 119 petunia submissions this year, the gardens are a “petunia hub,” said educator Adam.
Ball Floraplant has a new CannonBall series with a more mound habit, he noted, and the non-wilting, long-blooming “Bee’s Knees,” a favorite last year, is a tall yellow Petunia from Ball .
The reigning queen of Lancaster County petunias, topping the bestseller list again this year, is Proven Winners Supertunia Vista Bubblegum.
New this year, he noted, is PanAmerican Seed’s EasyWave “Pink Cosmo”, which is similar to Bubblegum.
American Takii introduced the ‘Evening Scentasation’ strain that Adam has enjoyed for years, he said.
Kientzler North America’s new “Pocket” calibrachoa series has been very successful this year, Adam said.
Cerny Seed’s Suberbissima series, with its ruffled flower borders, is “intriguing” and worth watching, Adam said.
Also, the Tea series of petunias submitted by Beekenkamp, he said, are “well-bred in habit, won’t take over your garden and have a good color range.”
Selecta’s Sky series has caught the eye of gardeners, with its splashy patterns on colorful petals, but gardeners should be aware that the white “stars” in the petals fade as summer progresses and warms.
For late season color, celosia rises to the top not only with its strong, true hues, but also its ability to attract pollinators.
In the begonia category, Sakata Seed America’s Viking Explorer “Red on Green” was a strong performer, Adam said. He also continues to love the BIG series of begonias presented by Benary. And, Syngenta’s Tophat begonias are an excellent series, he added.
American Takii’s Begonia F1 Fiona was another strong color performer, Adam said. Additionally, Ball’s Rivulet series, which produces a stream of medium-sized flowers, is a fine series for baskets, he said.
In the coleus area, Adam said, “I’ve always loved the FlameThrower series,” pointing to the ‘Cajun Spice’ and ‘Sriracha’ varieties in test gardens sent by Ball Floraplant.
New to the trail gardens this year are ‘Copperhead’ coleus, also from Ball, and ColorBlaze ‘El Brighto’ from Proven Winners. Both are good performers with good color, he said.
These varieties will be pruned towards the end of July to prevent them from growing too tall and becoming prone to snapping due to the wind, Adam said.
A dwarf coleus, ‘Spitfire’, from Ball FloraPlant is also a new addition that doesn’t need pinching, on the other hand.
For geraniums, Adam liked the bright color of Selecta One’s Zonal Moonlight “Orange” offering. A hybrid between calibrachoa and petunia, Sakata Seed’s SuperCal series is also intriguing, Adam said.
And, he said a great addition to the perennial department was the Sombrero series, a shorter variety of Echinacea, from Proven Winners.
Terra Nova Nurseries’ Kismet series is also a good bloomer, he said. Terra Nova Nurseries’ “Moab Sunset” Echinacea “feels like 115 degrees just looking at it,” Adam said.
Interesting ornamental grasses in the perennial zone include an intrinsic perennial garden cultivar called Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Love and Rockets’, “which is an absolute star,” Adam said.