Plant trials evolution

Departments - Hort Truths

Easy online access to key trials data may have vendors dropping out and attendants staying home.

October 17, 2019

Part of Spring Meadow Nursery’s display at Proven Winners’ 2019 California Spring Trials stop
Photo: Patrick Williams

You may have heard that Proven Winners has decided not to participate in the 2020 California Spring Trials. Many comments I’ve seen following the announcement express concern over the future of the event, given this exit, as well as declining attendance. What does it mean for the event and the evolution of other plant trial programs and events around the country? 

I have a special place in my heart for plant trials. When I arrived in Dallas in December of 1998, one of my first major goals for my new job at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden was to build a plant trials program. That I did, from the ground up — from building the actual trial garden to developing the plant evaluation system to begging everyone I knew to donate free trial plants. I also worked on the Texas A&M CEMAP and EarthKind trials and established the North Texas Winners Circle with Brent Pemberton at Texas A&M, Overton. Within about three or four years, we had a sustainable program rolling along, including an All-America Selections (AAS) Trial Garden. These trials are still going strong today. 

In the years since, plant trial programs across the country have evolved in scope and grown beyond the traditional public and university garden borders. Many industry growers have created their own trial programs, realizing the benefits of on-site testing. Ultimately, all gardening is local; plants that work in Portland can’t be expected to work in Dallas. Unbiased comparative trials from public institutions and organizations are always going to be high-priority; but there’s no denying that trialing and comparing your own plants in-situ has strategic value. 

When it comes to how plant trial programs should further evolve, I’d love to see more focus on the benefits of plants to wildlife and food production. Beyond beauty, we should be testing for expanded plant value. An important testing metric should be to test if selected hybrids have equivalent food value to local insect and bird species or can host and provide resources to other local wildlife. What about soil improvement? I’d love to see trials on ornamental plants that also have a positive impact on soil quality. 

Despite my hands-on experience running plant trials, I’ve never once been to the California Spring Trials event. Crazy, I know. Neither the budget nor the time was ever available for me to do so at the time and March is the full swing of spring craziness here in Texas. Leaving town for a week during the peak of the season was simply a no-go. That said, I was immersed in technology back in the day and built a dedicated plant trials website so our data could be shared with the industry. I also launched a plant trials field day at DABS to bring the industry to us. That was how I tried to stay connected and disseminate key trial information. Even so, getting the word out in a meaningful way was tough and exposure was very limited. You really had to visit in person to get good information.

Over the last decade, trial programs have gained much more industry and public visibility via our intense internet culture and ever-expanding social media outlets. Everyone along the entire plant supply chain can disseminate plant information globally and instantly whenever they want. It seems to me that easy online access to key data may have vendors dropping out and attendants staying home, which makes complete sense. 

Travel hasn’t exactly gotten easier these days, nor less expensive. Travel also has plenty of negative environmental consequences and other impacts on resources. With more and more trade shows cropping up, there just doesn’t seem to be enough money or time to get to all the events one should. And let’s face it: many industry members, especially in the southern half of the country, can’t head out of state in March for any reason. There’s no doubt that seeing people — and plants — face to face has intrinsic value. Such events are valuable networking opportunities. But every business, and individual, must weigh those benefits against the costs of getting there and time away from the operations, especially in peak season.

For breeders and researchers hosting expensive trial events, producing better digital content may offer an improved ROI for everyone involved. If I’d had easy ways to upload video and images 20 years ago, I no doubt would have put much more effort into digital dissemination and kept on-site trial events a smaller local industry affair. Digital data, videos, images and social media engagement also give you the option to invite the public to join in on your content and learn more about plants that will work for them, not to mention drive foot traffic to public gardens who host accessible trial gardens.

With the ability to distribute high-quality visuals and data online, I suspect many in the industry will be rethinking how to both create and consume plant trial results — both to better use budgets and resources and be better educators. 

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies.