by Stephen Wagner

Penn State Trial Garden Advisory Board Chair Andy Brown told Country Folks Grower that “Still the number one item out there in terms of units is calibrachoa [also called million bells]. It has an extremely wide color line, an incredible variety of colors, anywhere from solids to bi-colors, and it doesn’t have the stickiness that the petunia has.”

However, “Ball Company has a new verbena which I think is going to stay in bloom and take the heat a lot better, which I think will help bring verbena back.” Verbena has been waning of late since they seem to cycle in and out of flowering, he said. “They don’t break up like a petunia, and people really like that.”

Brown and I chatted briefly before Trial Garden Director Sinclair Adam Jr. led horticultural greenhousers and other disciples through the serpentine garden lanes replete with color-coded flags indicating varied superiorities. “Where you see blue flags,” Adam explained, “those plants received a ‘Superior’ on the first rating which was started on July 6. If they look a little bit less than perfect today [July 26], that’s due to the high rainfall impact that we have had.” Rainfall at that point had an accumulated 12 to 13 inches at specific points at the SEAREC farms.

Picking up the verbena ball from where Brown left off, he averred, “There are a bunch of good verbenas this year from Proven Winners, Ball and Dummen. Right now there’s a bit of attrition in blooms – no surprise with all the rainfall. I highly recommend the EnduraScape series. I’m looking at the Firehouse series closely, a new entry from Ball. It’s more upright. EnduraScape is a good landscape plant, but I think the Firehouse series will be a nice addition to the line.”

Empress from Dummen Orange, he said, was also good. It won last year and did well on this year’s first rating. The Empress Flair Burgundy Star was another stellar performer right up to the onset of the “monsoon,” as Adam refers to it.

Dummen Orange’s Great Falls Yosemite coleus is “probably not going to do so well if we continue to have incrementally large rainfalls,” Adam said. “It has a bit of downy mildew on it which often shows up in the green and yellow-green cultivars.” The one in question got a less than perfect score last time. Another Dummen, Main Street Sunset Boulevard, ”owns a really strong color combination,” Adam noted.

He also cited nice marigolds, some of which reached a superior rating on the first go, meaning they scored a 4.75 or better. Dahlias as a group proved somewhat problematic this year. “They are coming back,” Adam reassured his charges, “and thank goodness we had some cooler night temperatures in the past week so we could get some re-growth on them. We started out with a little pythium problem, and two or three of the cultivars are still showing the effects of that even though they received a Banrot drench through the injection system.”

Part of the journey of the long-distance cultivar includes the unsung work of volunteers, much of it by Master Gardeners. Rogie Fureman and Jane Watts, both MGs, are exceptionally dedicated when it comes to aiding with the trials. Last year, they were behind the scenes and involved with what’s called Plant Movement Day.

“Prior to potting up the five-gallon pots, we move about half of the plants to be potted from the greenhouse to the hoop-house and organize things by species to expedite the potting process,” Adam explained. “Prior to that day the plants are grouped by company to ensure bio-safety.

Speaking of bio-safety, Adam stated, “We are experiencing a little bit of Japanese beetle impact. Ironically, when the beetles come, they don’t stop coming. Once those girl beetles have put their pheromones on the plants the boy beetles come regardless of the toxicity. We sprayed with Safari, which is systemic. The beetles kept coming … they eat, they die, they fall. But it’s not a cure for the problem.

“If we stop them before they come in, we’re doing well,” Adam clarified, “but to spray this entire project with systemic chemicals would result in us losing the beneficial insects we rely on. We also have pirate bugs here. You’ll see random purple peppers and flash purple peppers placed throughout the program. Pirate bugs feed on the nectar.”

Commenting on Marginata from Takii, Adam noted, “The irony was that when they came to us, they arrived in a big pile. Every single plug had been dislodged from the plug tray, FedEx being a big pinball machine. So we had to wait a little longer, and they are a little smaller than some of the other cultivars because they were potted late. We had to figure out which was which.”

Adam said sometimes he likes to dispute the colors that he sees on the tag. Some say it’s blue when it’s really violet. “Part of our job is to clarify the colors, and so I would list this one as a red with violet tones in our rating.”

There are 110 varieties of petunias in the program this year. “Some of the doubles may not be as floriferous as the singles,” Adam said. “We do battle alternaria blight in petunias annually. It’s a fungus that you can’t eliminate from the landscape, so it overwinters on grass, weeds, lots of different plants, and so the inoculum is here every year. Some of the best varieties of resistance to alternaria are the Petchoas (Calibrachoa X).”

Adam couldn’t resist confessing a fact he learned about Supertunias. The breeding, he discovered, was done in England for the most part, “but they also incorporate something from another company in their lines. This Pink Star Charm, and Sangria Charm, are really good plants and very prolific in bloom. Supertunia Mulberry Charm and Morning Glory Charm … when I saw that I thought ‘That looks a lot like Blue Blanket from Green Fuse Botanicals,’ so maybe they struck a deal. I’m not sure.”