Bob Lyons, director of the Longwood Graduate Program, urged establishment of a trial garden at UD.

Petal palette

University's color trial garden puts new blooms to the test

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12:53 p.m., May 19, 2011--Next week, John Frett and his staff at the University of Delaware Botanic Gardens (UDBG) will take seedlings and plant plugs from the greenhouse and transplant them to the nearby color trial garden.  After two weeks of meticulous watering and mulching, the TLC will stop. The plants will be weeded on a regular basis throughout the summer but they won’t be watered, sprayed for disease, dead-headed or otherwise tended.

However, these flowering plants will be scrutinized closely by Claudia Bradley, the UDBG’s “guru of hue.” Just how orange are the blooms of the native gaillardia? How vibrant are the yellow flowers of the native bush honeysuckle? Is the heuchera -- another native -- looking showy or washed out? Every other week, Bradley will rank each plant on a 1 to 5 scale for bloom and foliage color.

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The blooming plants you buy at the garden store this spring were put to the test at UDBG’s color trial garden – or similar trial gardens nationwide – last season and perhaps several seasons before that. Commercial seed companies rely on color trial gardens to provide unbiased feedback about new varieties. Because the companies want plants that are strong and resilient, as well as colorful, no supplemental watering or other special care is allowed.

Which means that the one-third acre plot sometimes looks a bit sketchy amidst the rest of the UDBG’s carefully tended 15 acres.

“Last year there was a worm that ate all of the flower buds off the petunias so they had very few flowers,” reports Bradley,” and there is always a little beetle that eventually kills the cleome.”

The color trial garden was established in 2007, at the urging of Bob Lyons, director of the Longwood Graduate Program. Lyons oversaw a color trial garden when he was director of the J.C. Raulston Arboretum at North Carolina State University.

This season, the garden is hosting 110 new varieties of annuals and perennials, which is less than previous years. Frett, the director of the UDBG, attributes the drop to economic conditions.  Proven Winners, a brand owned by three plant propagators, is utilizing the garden for its Mid-Atlantic testing. And All-America Selections has chosen UD as a display garden for its winning plants. All-America Selections is a nonprofit that evaluates new vegetables and flowers via impartial trials throughout North America. All-America 2012 winners on display at UD this season will be available commercially next spring.

It’s fun for home gardeners to get a sneak peek at award-winners and other blooms that may become the hot flowers next season. But the trial garden serves a more important role as a hands-on classroom for UD students, ranging from first-year design majors to fellows in the Longwood Graduate Program.

“I teach an undergraduate class in herbaceous landscape plants and since we start up in late August, the garden is very valuable,” notes Lyons. “There is nothing better than real examples of plants I'm teaching; students get to see actual form, texture, color and flower features up close and personal, and at that time of the year, they are seeing the mature plant in the landscape.”

Lyons is a big fan of the trial garden but not just because of its educational role. “I'm all about color,” says Lyons. “I put any colors together in any combination without any regard for color wheels or how others perceive color in the landscape.”

“The number of new plants coming onto the market that exhibit new flower and foliage color is almost staggering these days,” he adds, “but it sure makes selection for the garden great fun.”

Not surprisingly, color is very important to Bradley, too. “I personally prefer hot colors and my eye goes more toward the red, orange and yellow flowers,” she says. Nonetheless, Bradley is an impartial evaluator in the trial garden and will give top scores to blue hues and pink petals if they so deserve.

Beyond great color, seed companies try to create distinctive or unusual colors or color combos, says Frett. “Last year we grew the ‘Phantom’ petunia that was almost black and had yellow stripes,” he says. “Seed companies – and home gardeners – are always looking for something new.”

UD Botanic Gardens

The color trial garden, and other gardens that make up the UD Botanic Gardens, are open for self-guided tours during daylight hours. The gardens are adjacent to Townsend Hall on UD’s Newark campus. Results of past trials can be found online.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photos by Danielle Quigley

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