OVERTON — If you want to select for hardy bedding plants, forget New York; think East Texas.
“If they can make it here, they can make it anywhere,” said John Antonelli, a Michigan-based representative with Proven Winners, a company that sells to retail garden centers across North America.
Antonelli was among approximately 180 international seed company representatives, professional growers and Master Gardeners attending the 2011 East Texas Horticultural Field Day held June 23 at Overton.
“The reason I’m here today is to see what the real world is like, out here in East Texas,” Antonelli said.
Dr. Brent Pemberton, Texas AgriLife Research horticulturist, started testing bedding plants and ornamentals at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in 1994 with about 100 entries. By 2011, the number of entries had grown to more than 400, and the East Texas bedding plant industry has expanded as well, he said.
“It’s approximately a $500-million industry,” Pemberton said. “In this part of the state, the industry stretches from this area over to the Dallas/Fort Worth area. We probably have about $100 million of ornamental production in that area as well. We do these trials to provide information to growers, but also to consumers, so they can make better choices in the plants they grow.”
As in recent years, the 2011 trials included thousands of square feet of plots of purple, pink, red and white flowers. There were new varieties of geranium, trailing petunias, verbena, angelonia, begonias, lantana, gomphrena and lobelia, Pemberton said. And there was continuing emphasis on vinca, a plant widely used in Southern landscapes.
Wayne Pianta, with Pan American Seed Company, an international plant breeding company, was another who makes the Overton field day a “must-attend” entry on his calendar, he said.
“We’re here to see how a lot of our varieties perform in comparison with those from other breeding companies,” Pianta said. “This is one of the important field trials where we evaluate varieties and see how they perform in the extremely hot summers of Texas.”
Sue Adee and Ann Pattullo, Smith County Master Gardeners, are also regular attendees, but for different reasons, they said.
“I have come every year since the trials began,” Adee said. “I make selections for our Ideal Garden at the Tyler Rose Garden.”
“This is the day I look forward to every year,” Pattullo said. “I really make note of everything I like.”
Both Adee and Pattullo, along with many other regional Texas Master Gardeners, volunteer to help the with the labor-intensive aspect of the field trials, donating hundreds of hours of labor planting and tending the plots.
Pemberton noted the trials would not be possible – at least not in their current size – without volunteer work from Master Gardeners from Smith and Rusk counties, volunteer organizations administered by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.
George Hull, of New Plant Introductions, a Phoenix-based plant breeding company, said the field day is a kind of a ‘watering-hole,’ where he can meet with other people in the business nationwide, including, of course, competitors.
“(We want) to see how our plants are comparing with everyone else’s — obviously,” Hull said.
This year, Hull was particularly interested, he said, in how his new line of Tecoma would do. Tecoma is an evergreen flowering shrub more popular in semi-arid climates, and a first-time entry in the trials.
“There are about 18 species, but basically, the ones available here have all been just yellow ( blooms),” he said. “I wanted (to breed) something that’s manageable in size, down to about three or four feet, and has some other colors.”
Some retailers also traveled across several states to attend the field day.
Doug Welty, director of specialty marketing at Cottage Farms, traveled from Mobile, Ala., to look for particularly hardy varieties, he said.
“We have a unique part of our business where we sell plants directly to the consumer via QVC (the televised home-shopping network),” he said. “All of our merchandise is shipped directly to the homeowner.”
Welty said he not only has to select plants with great genetics that will perform well for his customers, he must also select those that are tough enough to survive being shipped across country.
Pemberton added: “Some plants do well — even thrive — under Texas heat and sometimes droughty summers. Others do not, and it’s important for both amateur garden enthusiasts and those who develop and market new varieties to find out which is the case before they make substantial investments.”