And the winner is? How a Colorado gardener planted a floral path for the Mountain West

And the winner is?  How a Colorado gardener planted a floral path for the Mountain West

The sun is shining in Fort Collins, Colorado, and the air smells good. Horticulturist Chad Miller of Colorado State University guides a group of professional gardeners around large pots and long rows of flowers in rainbow colors.

“So we stay with this as the top one? Or do we decide to move on to number two?” Miller said, pointing to the 'Plumify Mango' and 'Hot Blood' lantana plants, respectively.

Ron Broome of Ball Seed and Diana Reeves of Eason Horticulture Resources raise their hands to vote “yes” for a plant at Colorado State University's annual demonstration garden on Sept. 8, 2023. Broome and Reeves are among the judges on the special panel that re-evaluates the best flowers and selects the winners.

But this is not the time to stop and smell the roses. Of the 18,000 plants, many local gardeners are pondering how this year's best annuals will survive a cold, rainy summer. Some of them even touch the leaves or bend down to see the underside of the plant so they can write constructive comments.

“Vote for 'warm-blooded'?” Miller said as he counted the raised hands. “Okay, the comments. (It's) a very tricky outfit.

“The bright red flower is still blooming,” said Holly Shields, who works at City Park Greenhouse in Denver.

But only one plant will take home the top prize after enduring Colorado's challenging growing environment. It's all part of the university's annual experimental flower garden.

The goal is to find out which plants are the most persistent, healthiest and most preferred among experts and consumers – so that companies know what to sell next season. And with Colorado's crazy climate, it's sure to be desirable land for many Mountain West ranchers.

“They can see that Plant

Two people walk on a brown road lined with colorful flowers.

Visitors wander through CSU's annual experimental garden. With about 18,000 plants in the garden, many people say they visit to find inspiration for their own garden or simply to take a break in nature.

Here's how the garden works: About 25 companies, such as Syngenta, Proven Winners and Dümmen Orange, offer annuals for testing — plants that live for only one season and must be replanted the following year.

Student interns and volunteer gardeners begin growing plants in the greenhouses in March and April, then go out to plant in May. They grow two rows of 18 plants per entry, so it's easy to compare companies' entries. Gardeners estimate that they have more than 1,100 species of flowers.

“The annual events here have become a staple venue, and we call this kind of the Floral Arts District of Fort Collins,” said Jim Klett, who preceded Miller as coordinator of the experimental garden and worked at the university for 44 years.

Then, gardeners wait to see what happens, carefully measuring how much water is added to the soil and tracking the fertilizers they use.

Undergraduate student Tate Erickson assists with initial observations. He said that despite the cold and rainy weather this year, the plants did not grow larger or produce more flowers.

“You see it in plants because they don't look like big leaves or they don't flower,” he said. “And they were underwater in early August because of the amount of water we had out here with. Their feet were wet for a few days. But they endured these harsh conditions for a few days and still look as good as they do now.”

Two hands holding a smartphone with pots of flowers in a courtyard in the background.

Professor Emeritus Jim Klett holds the evaluation sheet on his phone. This is the form that master gardeners and other industry professionals originally filled out to create their top five plants from each category.

Once the plants go through hell and Literal High water, in August, master gardeners rate each one from 1-5. They ask questions like: Is the plant strong? Do they have Japanese beetles or other diseases? Does the color fade?

“You look at the plant overall and wonder, 'Is it healthy or not?'” says Patti Budwell, a master gardener who has been judging the annual trial garden for five years, including this one. “The way I judge it is: Would I buy it and put it in my garden?”

This experience is not just for expert gardeners. The university also has a consumer day, where anyone can have their say on what they want. This year there were more than 250 people walking through the gardens and enjoying the plants, Miller said.

A white piece of paper pinned to a column with colored lines to indicate categories.

After all the flowers have been evaluated, the top five from each section are marked with colorful flags around the garden. Consumers are allowed to rate their opinions as well, and these finalists are marked with engraved flags.

Miller and his team compile the results and mark the top five in each division with flags for re-evaluation. Then, a select panel of judges visits the top five to see if the number one flower is still worthy of that spot.

The results can be very close – such as one tenth of a decimal point. Miller said the reassessment is the last chance to gauge the strength of the plant and see if the scales have turned.

“That's what the consumer wants, if you plant this, yeah, it might look good until early August… but if it continues inside “August, that’s better,” Miller said.

Judges write detailed comments about the winners and share the results publicly by spring. A third of the flowers in the garden have not yet been on the market and are being tested as new plants this year, Erickson said. He wouldn't be surprised if some of these flowers end up on shelves in the spring.

The park began in the 1970s on a small plot of land near Colorado State Stadium. It had only about 100 species. But it didn't take long before interest in the industry grew, and so did the garden. Now in its 23rd year near the CSU Center for the Arts, it is one of the largest university experimental parks in the country.

“We've basically become a regional experiment,” said Klett, the experiment park's former coordinator. “We don't really have any other trials like this in this part of the country.”

The area's unique climate could help predict how well the flowers will fare in other parts of the Mountain West, Klett said.

“In Colorado, like the day we have today, the skies are beautiful blue, the humidity is generally low, and the light intensity is high,” he said. “So it's a great place, basically, where you can basically grow and evaluate annuals.”

Erickson has seen growers from Montana and other parts of the region eyeing the garden, since the plants there are so tolerant. This includes the cold, temperature fluctuations and Fort Collins' 5,000-foot elevation.

“You put a lot of pressure on them and then you see them snap out of it,” he said. “(For) Colorado here, it's like these plants are resilient if they kind of stand up to this.”

Klett hopes this knowledge will help consumers choose weather-resistant flowers and improve their gardening success so that one of America's great pastimes can continue.

“We don't want new gardeners to spend money and then not be successful in their gardening,” Klett said. “We want them to keep doing that.”

This year, the best new cultivar was Begonia Stonehedge, chosen primarily for its excellent performance in sun and shade, in the ground and in containers. The Best New Plant award went to the Centaurea Chrome Fountain for its surprise blooms in late August and unique silver color.

But gardeners and consumers agreed that the best displayed was the apricot tricolor dahlia. Thanks to its variegated pink color, lack of pests and abundance of pollinators, it was very popular.

“It also received, I think it was 25 or 28 flags (from Consumer Day), which is more than anything else in the park as well,” Erickson said. “This has caught everyone's interest throughout the year.”

Close-up of pink flowers with dense dark green leaves.

The tricolor apricot dahlia was a favorite among gardeners and consumers, taking home the Best in Show award. Erickson said it's rare for both sides to agree, so this was a clear winner for everyone.

In addition to the annual experiment, the university conducts a permanent experiment at a flowerbed across the street. It is a three-year trial of more than 300 varieties that receive the same evaluation and feedback as annual varieties.

Miller and his team hope to build annual and perennial gardens with more varieties — such as tulips and daffodils in the spring — soon. For now, they will continue to experiment so that consumers can have better, stronger flowers in their backyards.

“People look at the park in a different way when they know it's not just a display,” Erickson said. “There's more research and information behind it… where can you see and visualize plants and how well they're performing?” This is one of the best locations.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Conner in Nevada, Conk in Colorado and KANU in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations in all throughout the region. . Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by Public Broadcasting Corporation.

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