Touring a Trial Garden (And Starting Your Own)

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The old seed-sorting house at Fordhook Farm

I recently went to the International Master Gardener Conference in the Philadelphia suburbs. A fun part of these conferences is the tours and learning sessions in various public gardens, and that part of Pennsylvania certainly doesn’t lack gardens! (Many generous wealthy people donating estates = lots of places to play with plants.) On my last day there, I went on a tour of Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, the home of the Burpee company. We were welcomed by George Ball himself (looking dapper in a white suit) and given a lecture about the history of the company. Then we were set loose to tour the trial gardens. Of course I headed straight for the vegetables.

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Nice-looking kale, being assessed for production, taste, and heat tolerance

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Eggplants grown on black mulch to warm the soil (irrigation underneath)

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Pretty tendril pea (use the tips in salads and stir-fries)

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Trying out some patio tomatoes and container cucumbers

This garden also trials annual flowers, like these (hopefully) downy mildew-resistant impatiens:

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The big news in veggie-land, which of course I neglected to take a photo of, is direct-sow tomatoes. The plants I saw had been seeded outdoors in early May and were nearly the size of the tomatoes I transplanted into my garden in mid-May, which had all been started indoors. We don’t do a lot of direct sowing of tomatoes in the mid-Atlantic, because they take too long to catch up and bear fruit, so these plants bred to be speedy are really promising. But how will they taste? And will they be able to tolerate changing spring temperatures as they germinate and grow? These questions have yet to be answered, and that’s what trials are for. Don’t expect these seeds to appear in catalogs for a few years yet.

Fordhook Farm isn’t usually open to the public, but they do have a few visiting days in the summer, which you can find out about by searching online. If you ever get a chance to visit a trial garden, do! And if not, you can start your own, on a small scale. I learned that the main purpose of W. Atlee Burpee’s early vegetable trials was to breed plants that would do well in American climates, like the hot humid summers of Pennsylvania, where many European seed strains languished. You don’t have to do your own breeding, because seed companies have done it for you. But which varieties do best for you? I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of buying seeds based on the pretty picture in the catalog, and finding that the resulting plants bolt too early, or don’t produce much, or look sick all the time. They may do well somewhere else, but not in your state or your particular microclimate.

So do a trial! Pick out two or more varieties of a vegetable you want to grow, types that look similar and promise the same results. Plant enough of each to get a fair sample, making sure they have similar soil and sun conditions in the garden and are treated the same (watering, fertilizer, bug patrol, etc.). Keep track of your harvest, preferably by weighing it. Take lots of photos. If you like collecting data, measure the size of the plants, and count the number of pest insects you remove. Ask family and friends to do a taste comparison. Write everything down in a place you won’t lose it. If you find a winner, buy those seeds again–and maybe some others to trial against them.

Hope your summer gardens are beginning to be bountiful!

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By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener

3 Comments on “Touring a Trial Garden (And Starting Your Own)

  1. I have “direct-sow” tomatoes almost every year. The seeds overwinter in my compost and grow in the veg. beds that I spread it on in the spring. Of course the kind of tomato is then a surprise! I have the spectrum from just barely growing and setting flower to monster plants covered in fruits.

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    • Absolutely – we all get volunteers, especially of cherry tomatoes. But they usually lag behind the transplanted tomatoes and don’t produce ripe fruit as early. The goal of this trial is to end up with controlled varieties that can be sown directly and produce as soon as tomatoes started inside weeks earlier, or at least early enough to make them competitive and attractive for gardeners to use.

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      • Ah…I get it now. I’d be all over those. My efforts with starting from seeds indoors are pathetic.

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