Champaign County Master Gardener's Plant Trial Program

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Like clockwork, the Champaign County Master Gardeners (CCMG) moved hundreds of plants from the greenhouse out to the Idea Garden on University of Illinois Campus in early May. This annual tradition has been ongoing for over two decades now as part of a plant trial program the gardeners participate in with Proven Winners®. 

Its no small feat for these plants to arrive in the Idea Garden each May.  They have been shipped to central Illinois from production facilities afar.  Master Gardeners have carefully watered and tended to their every need in the greenhouse for weeks since their arrival in late March. 

Two weeks ago, on the hottest two days of the year, the dedicated crew of CCMG’s carefully set plants out at the Idea Garden in a pre-planned design and planted them for all to see the rest of the growing season.

Master Gardeners work at the Idea Garden on UIUC Campus
Master Gardners work diligently in the morning heat to install hundreds of plants at the Idea Garden on UIUC Campus. The gardeners will then assess the performance of over four dozen varieties of plants throughout the growing season.

“It’s our 21st year doing trials and there’s always something new!  In the trials area alone, we planted 594 plants on a toasty hot day, but it was worth it,” notes Ann Tice, Champaign County Master Gardener and chairperson of the Trials Project.

The plant selections included trials are part of a larger program including 47 separate garden locations across the US and Canada.  Proven Winners® sends specific plants to locations across the continent to assess plant performance in each region.  The CCMG’s are unique in this program as the only volunteer group to participate.  Other trials occur in botanical gardens or university field trials and other settings on college campuses.   

At each participating trial garden, observations throughout the gardening season are reported by the participating organization.  Data are used to measure how well a variety will perform in particular region of the country.  Many times, trial plants are new varieties that are being tested prior to release to public.  Other times the plants are being trialed in a new area of the country or included for specific comparison to other varieties

The plants included in these trials are typically beautifully blooming annuals, such as begonias or petunias.  With names like ‘Jazzberry’, ‘Medusa Green’ and ‘Pineapple Brandy’, it’s amazing to see all the varieties every year and there is much excitement when the list of plants is released each winter.  Our list typically includes around 50 different varieties, consisting primarily of sun-loving annuals as well as a smaller selection of shade plants.

 “We have 48 different kinds of plants on display this year- from fabulous foliage to perky petunias and other blooming wonders, all with a label so the public, professors, and any gardener can learn about them”, says Tice.

This year, the CCMG trials program has added something new to bolster their assessment of the plant materials.  Since a number of the varieties included were specifically bred for containers, the group has established a number of new container plantings to better assess performance in large, self-watering pots, as opposed to the many planting beds they use each year.

“We’re looking forward to seeing how the new plants grow, how the new huge containers do, and how new designs perform,” Tice notes.  “Two designs this year have a heart in the middle.  The areas are named “Love of Gardening” and “Crazy for Gardening”, the later having rock faces with Juncus (reed) ‘Curly Wurly’ sprouting like hair from it!”

If you are interested in seeing the trail plants in action, please visit the Idea Garden this summer and look for signage about the project.  Our in-ground trails plantings are installed around the garden shed to the east of the main garden space and the containers are on display throughout the main garden area.  All plants are labeled so you can see the results for yourself.

More information about the Proven Winners® Plant Trial Program around the US, include past year’s results, can be found at:  https://www.provenwinners.com.  Please note, this information is provided for educational purposes and Illinois Extension does not endorse any company, products, or services over another.

This August, we will host a program at the Idea Garden, where Ann Tice and the CCMG Trials Team will discuss all the plants and their performance in the garden throughout the year.  We have not scheduled this event yet, but please stay tuned to this column or visit the Champaign County Extension’s website for more information at:  https://extension.illinois.edu/cfiv.