Master Plants

The Beautiful Gardens program is designed to spur economic growth in southern Virginia through the discovery and promotion of new plant varieties. The first offspring—nine well-tested hybrids—are now hitting the market. 

Great plants for Virginia gardens. More jobs and money for cash-strapped southern Virginia. The expansion of Virginia’s horticulture industry. Those are the aims of a new horticultural research and ornamental plant introduction program called Beautiful Gardens.

     The brainchild of the Virginia Nursery & Landscape Association (VNLA) and Virginia Tech’s Horticulture Department, Beautiful Gardens got started five years ago when five plant “evaluation sites” were established across Virginia for the testing of new plant cultivars. Now the program’s first offerings have hit the market—nine Virginia-grown and Virginia-tested ornamental trees, shrubs and perennials ready for planting, among them the Green Velvet boxwood, the Snowflake oakleaf hydrangea, and a Chinese redbud named Don Egolf (see the full list in the sidebar). “The plants selected for 2009 are all exceptional but underutilized in the home landscape,” explains Doug Hensel, Beautiful Gardens’ chairman and president of Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond.

     Virginia’s innovative plant program is not the first of its kind. A handful of other states, including Texas, Arkansas and Georgia, have similar ventures, and there is also a commercial enterprise called Proven Winners that’s been launched by a trio of plant propagation companies. But Rumen Conev, executive director of Beautiful Gardens and a professor at Virginia Tech, asserts that Virginia’s program is in a category all its own. “What makes us unique,” Conev says, “is the broadness of a partnership that includes industry, academia, botanic gardens, state government and the wide, supportive base from the Virginia Master Gardener volunteers. Master Gardener volunteers and Virginia Tech specialists are currently testing more than 100 plants, including nine plants already selected for 2010.”

     To be sure, there is no shortage of participants. In addition to Virginia Tech’s Horticulture Department and the VNLA—the green industry trade group comprising garden centers, nursery growers, landscapers, installation contractors, greenhouses and horticultural suppliers—other Beautiful Gardens partners include the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, Claytor Nature Study Center at Lynchburg College, and Norfolk Botanical Garden. VDACS is providing the marketing muscle that has made Virginia’s Finest such a desirable appellation. Yet another partner, the Danville-based Institute for Sustainable and Renewable Resources (ISRR), is collaborating with VT experts in an attempt to foster the green industry by improved propagation techniques.

     Meantime, the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, the ISRR’s parent organization, is currently working to spin off a commercial tissue culture propagation lab. Such a facility would be a tremendous boon to Virginia’s horticultural industry, allowing breeders to work with an in-state lab. Two promising ISRR/VT horticulture projects are the development of more vigorous, longer-blooming triploid daylilies and propagation of native azaleas. Members of daylily and rhododendron societies are contributing to those efforts.

     More than anything, Beautiful Gardens was conceived to become a catalyst for economic growth in southern Virginia, which has been hit hard by the loss of textile plants and a depressed market for tobacco. Much of the program’s funding—including an initial grant of $276,000 for the establishment of the cultivar test sites—has come from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, an entity created in 1999 to disperse money from the national tobacco settlement. According to Barry Flinn, director of ISRR, “The novel varieties we are developing with our partners at Beautiful Gardens could help diversify this area’s tobacco-based economy by providing marketable new products. Through our research efforts, we hope to develop Southside Virginia into a horticultural/plant biotechnology hub in the future.”

      For some of the state’s tobacco farmers, switching from “the noxious weed” to innocuous garden plants might not require heavy investment. Beautiful Gardens officials say, for example, that the greenhouses that tobacco farmers traditionally use for starting seed could possibly become production facilities for “liners”—the industry term for young plants purchased by nurseries to grow until they reach the sizes normally sold at garden centers.

     Beautiful Gardens program coordinator Lisa Lipsey, who oversees the test sites and the work of the volunteers conducting plant evaluations, describes the endeavor as “exciting,” for two reasons: “It depends on the involvement of so many groups, and it marries university science to a business model.” The $3 billion horticultural industry is the fastest-growing segment of Virginia’s agricultural industry, and, Lipsey says, “Beautiful Gardens has the potential to expand it, becoming a boon to growers and garden centers.”

     Before being declared a great choice for Old Dominion landscapes, each cultivar is evaluated for several years at the five test sites across the state. All of the proposed introductions must prove they are superior to the cultivars now available in the trade and perform well statewide—from the oceanfront to the western mountains.

     Fred Duis, an early proponent of the Beautiful Gardens program and its first president, applauds the contributions of plant enthusiasts. “I love the concept of amateurs working with academics and nursery industry professionals to find new and unusual plants to market under the Beautiful Gardens trademark,” he says. “Hobbyists have hybridized some wonderful plants, which shows you don’t have to be a nurseryman or a researcher to enjoy plant breeding.” Duis is head of a Bedford wholesale nursery and was the VNLA’s Nurseryman of the Year in 2007.

     Virginia Master Gardeners are playing a key role in the program. They tend to and evaluate the plants at the various test sites. Bill McCaleb of Halifax was president of the group when it voted in 2004 to partner with Beautiful Gardens. “The integrity of the program is in the research and evaluation going on in Virginia’s USDA growing zones,” he says. “Master Gardeners have evaluated more than 100 different plants since we started trials five years ago. Several were eliminated, and others with promise have been added to the trials as we look for plants home­owners will fall in love with and have to have.”

     Linda Pinkham, now retired from Smithfield Gardens, the Suffolk garden center she owned and operated with her husband Bill, recalls with amusement how heated some of the Beautiful Gardens plant selection meetings became. “Just try to get a bunch of plant nuts to trim the list of nominees to a reasonable number,” says Pinkham. “We all had our favorites and were vocal about them.” Even some that everyone loved didn’t make the list, she adds, “because the numbers available to retailers were so limited.”

     Luck plays a role in the process of creating new plant varieties, because one never knows what one will get—a sturdy beauty or a fragile novelty. John Wise, who teaches plant propagation at J. Sargeant Rey­nolds Community College in Goochland, discovered the Virginia holly growing at the Virginia Agriculture Experiment Station in Virginia Beach. His eye caught by its attractive pyramidal form and profusion of red berries, Wise learned that the fast-growing tree was a relic from a long-forgotten research project by a National Arboretum scientist.

     Wise’s admiration for the plant led him to propagate and promote it—and his reward is seeing it listed among the first nine varieties to carry the 2009 Beautiful Gardens appellation.

     Be Sure to see the 2009 Plants of Merit in the slideshow tab above.

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