Breeders will continue to introduce new plants, but how does the grower, landscaper or retailer know if they’re any good? That is the importance of plant trials. With a few exceptions, landscape trials consist mainly of plants already introduced to the public. Trials serve an important function: to allow easy comparison of taxa within breeder material and also among different breeders. In his keynote address at the 2015 International Trials Conference, Allan Armitage spoke about the role plant trials play in shaping the future of horticulture. We spoke with the author, speaker, horticulturist and University of Georgia professor emeritus about the challenges and potential for improving the process of plant trialing.
What are the challenges public and private trial gardens face, and what’s the best way for them to coexist going forward?
The challenges all trial gardens face is ‘Who’s paying attention?’
A private trial garden that is trialing in order to see what is best for them to sell, or brings in trials from other companies to see what they can make money on, is becoming more and more important. We have more and more companies that are trialing because they work with the large box stores, and the box stores come in and see what they’ve got, looks good, brings customers in, and it sells plants.
For the private trialers, the challenge is how you work it into your budget, how you keep one breeder from looking at another breeder’s product, etc.
Public trials are under far more pressure. Public, meaning university trials mainly. There are certainly botanical gardens, but they seem to have their own budget. The issue is funding — as it always is in a university — and who’s going to do it. I mentioned that a trial garden is no place for a young professor. Because a young professor, in order to get tenure and promotion, must raise lots of money and must publish academic papers. Both of those are difficult to do if you are managing a trial garden. It doesn’t mean they can’t do it on the side, but it’s difficult.
Most of the funding for academic trial gardens comes from the breeder. That’s all well and good, but the more private operations that get into trialing — the Metrolinas, Youngs, Van Wingerdens — the breeders have to ask, ‘Where am I going to put my money? Where am I going to put my time?’ Sometimes, the academic side of it is more difficult.
In your keynote, you said “new” is important for some consumers, but for some consumers it isn’t. How does a trial garden square that demand to keep up with all the new plants?
The fact is that most consumers don’t have a clue what’s new. That doesn’t mean they don’t ask what’s new, but they see something that looks beautiful and it could be five years old, but it’s new to them and that’s just fine.
From a trialing point of view, that’s why we have standards and comparisons and we have the old plants in there as well as the new. So that A) we can certainly see if the new is any good and B) so we can show that there is value in some of these older plants. That balance is quite important.
Speaking of standards, should public and private trials adhere to uniform across-the-board standards for a more apples-to-apples trial?
We have to make our data transparent. We have to make it so you can go to one site and see what a geranium or Astilbe looks like in Georgia, Wisconsin or California. You, being a person who’s interested in knowing where these plants are best, can then tailor your own sales to say, ‘These are the best ones, let’s go get them.’ A garden center should be able to get on this one site and say, ‘These are looking really good for me.’
And that’s what they should be concentrating on, because even though the consumer has no idea, the consumer is going into a garden center because they trust the garden center. They can go to Lowe’s and Home Depot every day, that’s fine, I have no problem with those guys. But if you’re going to a garden center, and the garden center is going to survive, they have to have plants that people can trust, and that’s how you find them.
What’s happening with the National Plant Trials Database? How can trial sites and breeders get involved?
The National Plant Trial Database started three years ago, and it’s really easy for a breeder or trial garden to get involved.
It’s doing well, but it’s not doing great. We’ve got 12 breeders, 39 trial gardens. There’s a lot more breeders and trial gardens than that. It’s like three steps forward and two steps back.
To me, it’s the most important way in which trial gardens are going to make a difference. I don’t mean to say they don’t make a difference already, for people who are wanting to visit or go to their own website. But let’s get this so that everyone is using the same standards.
The National Plant Trial Database does put out standards – how many times you have to take data, how many plants you have to put in the trial, when you have to start them – things of that nature. Now it’s up the breeder to get the material to the trial gardens on time and it’s up to the trial gardens to get the info back to the breeders on time. That’s what we’re working on. I think it is an important concept.
For more: www.planttrials.org