Through a new partnership among industry, academia, and gardening enthusiasts, a program has begun to develop new and test under-used varieties of ornamental germplasm through a research-based plant introduction program.
The Beautiful Gardens™ program, which is centered in the tobacco regions of Virginia, is expected to boost ornamental horticulture output, creating new jobs and opportunities for agricultural entrepreneurs as well as providing alternative uses for the tobacco greenhouses in the region.
"The economic impact of the green industry on the state of Virginia is about $3 billion," says Jerzy Nowak, head of the Department of Horticulture in Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "The industry relies quite significantly on new plants and varieties and new introductions."
With the Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association (VNLA) as the lead collaborator, a comprehensive partnership has been established with organizations including:
• Virginia Tech;
• the Institute for Sustainable and Renewable Resources at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR);
• the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services;
• the Virginia Master Gardener Association;
• the Norfolk Botanical Garden; and
• the Claytor Nature Study Center at Lynchburg College.
The partnership's goal is to create a production and marketing infrastructure and research-based technical and educational information to support the introduction of new plants in the mid-Atlantic region.
The Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association received a grant for $276,000 from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission in the fall of 2004 to help establish test sites and fund a director position.
Assistant Professor of Horticulture Rumen Conev, from the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, was appointed as the program's executive director, and as of 2007 he is also an assistant professor of horticulture at Virginia Tech.
To take advantage of Virginia's unique climatic conditions, Conev developed five evaluation sites strategically located across Virginia to get the best possible testing scenarios. The sites were established with deer-proof fencing, irrigation systems, shade structures, and weather stations connected to the Internet.
An important aspect of the Beautiful Gardens program is the involvement of the Virginia Master Gardeners Association (VMGA).
The master gardeners have been instrumental in the development of the test sites by assisting with site maintenance; planting the new plants; and, most importantly, collecting data and providing feedback about the plants' performance.
"The master gardeners take care of the plants, nurture them, and collect and record the data as the plants grow and evolve," explains Bill McCaleb, past president of the association and chair of the site managers' committee for Beautiful Gardens. "There are 44 different species — 126 plants at each site."
Conev emphasizes: "Nearly 100 master gardeners volunteer their time and expertise to the program. They are not just there to maintain the sites, they also collect data and provide important information that helps us make decisions about the plants."
Conev says he estimates the value of the master gardeners' labor since the inception of the program to be more than $60,000.
Local communities and program's partners are also contributing, including use of land, labor, electricity, and water. "The in-kind support helps with the sustainability of the program," says McCaleb. "People can see that this program has the potential to add economic value to Southside Virginia."
The Beautiful Gardens Plant Selection Committee, comprised of representatives from the program partners, select the plants for testing and determine which plants will be marketed.
The plants enter the testing sites and undergo established testing protocol. The new plants grow at each test site for a minimum of three years. During this time the plants are evaluated for their ornamental qualities, adaptation potential, resistance to pests and diseases, and consistency of performance. Recommendations for commercialization are made based on the results.
As a nursery owner, Fred Duis understands the value of testing the plants for multiple years. "Weather and other environmental conditions vary from year to year, so for us to get a clear picture of how a given plant will adapt to our area, we must have patience to see how it performs over a period of time that presents a wide range of environmental conditions," he says.
According to Conev, this rigorous, extended, and scientific-based evaluation is what makes Beautiful Gardens different from many other commercial plant introduction programs.
Eight to 10 plants a year are expected to be selected for promotion and made available to Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association members. The first plants will be promoted in 2009.
"The most exciting aspect of the program is to see all of our stakeholders working together toward our common goal, which is the introduction of those special plants that make a lasting impact on the market and in the American garden," says Duis. "I believe that the result of our collective, complementary efforts will, without a doubt, exceed the sum of our individual contributions."
This new dogwood cultivar, a plant produced for the Beautiful Gardens partnership, was developed by Master Gardener Jane Newman of Great Falls, Va.
Bracts on a typical flowering dogwood are much smaller, approximately 3 centimeters long and 2.5 centimeters wide.
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