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And the winner is? How one Colorado garden has planted a floral path for the Mountain West

A group of people stand in a green garden.
Emma VandenEinde
CSU Horticulturalist and Annual Trial Garden Coordinator Chad Miller (right) points out the next flower the group is evaluating to judge David Staats (left). The group looks at the top performing flower in each section (whether it be Lantanas, Geraniums, etc.) to see if it should stay at the top or not.

The sun is rising on Fort Collins, Colorado, and the air smells sweet. Horticulturist Chad Miller from Colorado State University directs a group of master gardeners around the large pots and long, rainbow rows of flowers.

”So we’re staying with this as the top? Or have we decided to move to number two?” Miller said, pointing at the “Bloomify Mango” and “Hot Blooded” Lantana plants, respectively.

Three people hold their hands up with a flower garden visible in the background.
Emma VandenEinde
Ron Brum of Ball Seed and Diana Reavis of Eason Horticultural Resources raise their hands to vote 'yes' for a plant in the Colorado State University Annual Trial Garden on September 8, 2023. Brum and Reavis are some of the judges in a special committee that re-evaluates the best flowers and picks the winners.

But this is no time to stop and smell the flowers. Among the 18,000 plants, several local gardeners weigh in on how the best of this year’s annuals survived a cool and rainy summer. Some of them are even touching the leaves or bending low to see the underside of the plant so they can write constructive comments.

“Vote for 'Hot Blooded'?” Miller said as he counted the raised hands. “OK, comments. (It’s) super-duper uniform.”

“Still blooming, bright red flower,” Holly Shields, who works for Denver’s City Park Greenhouse, said.

But only one plant would get the top prize after enduring Colorado’s tough growing environment. It’s all a part of the university’s Annual Flower Trial Garden.

The goal is to figure out which plants are the sturdiest, healthiest and most well-liked among experts and consumers – so companies know what to sell next season. And, with Colorado’s crazy climate, it’s sure to be a sought-after proving ground for many breeders in the Mountain West.

“They can see Plant X doesn't do as well here, so maybe that's not something they want to invest in (on) the production side,” Miller said.

Two people walk on a brown path lined with colorful flowers on either side.
Emma VandenEinde
Visitors stroll through the CSU Annual Trial Garden. With around 18,000 plants in the garden, many people say they visit to find inspiration for their own garden or to just take a break in nature.

Here’s how the garden works: Around 25 companies, like Syngenta, Proven Winners and Dümmen Orange, submit annuals to test – plants that only live for one season and have to be replanted the following year.

Student interns and volunteer gardeners start growing the plants in greenhouses in March and April, and then in May they go out to plant. They plant two rows of 18 plants for each entry so it is easy to compare the companies’ entries. The gardeners estimate that they have more than 1,100 varieties of flowers.

“The annuals here have become a major spot, we call this kind of the flower art district of Fort Collins,” Jim Klett, who preceded Miller as trial garden coordinator and worked at the university for 44 years, said .

Then, the gardeners wait to see what happens, carefully measuring how much water is being added to the soil and keeping track of the fertilizer they’re using.

Undergrad student Tate Erickson helps with the initial observations. He said that despite the cooler, rainier weather this year, generally, the plants have not grown bigger or developed more flowers.

“You see it in the plants because they're not like pushing out as big of leaves or they're not as floriferous” he said. “And they were under(water) in early August just by the amount of water that we got out here. They had wet feet for a few days. But they tolerated that harsh condition for a few days and they still look as good as they do now.”

Two hands hold a smart phone with pots of flowers on a patio in the background.
Emma VandenEinde
Professor Emeritus Jim Klett holds up the evaluation sheet on his phone. This is the form that master gardeners and other industry professionals fill out originally to generate the 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 sturdy? Does it have any Japanese beetles or other diseases? Is the color fading?

“You just kind of look at the plant overall and say, ‘Is it healthy or not?’” said Patty Bodwell, a master gardener who has judged 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 trial isn’t just for expert gardeners. The university also has a consumer day, when anyone can weigh in on what they like. This year, Miller said there were more than 250 people walking the gardens and enjoying the flora.

A white piece of paper taped to a pole with colored lines to denote categories.
Emma VandenEinde
After all of the flowers are evaluated, the top five from each section are marked with colored flags around the garden. Consumers are allowed to weigh in their opinions too, and those finalists are marked with patterned flags.

Miller and his team tally up the results and mark the top five in each section with flags for re-evaluation. Then, a select panel of judges revisit the top five to see if the number one flower still deserves that spot.

The results can be close – like a tenth of a decimal point. Miller said the re-evaluation is the last chance to see the plant’s strength and see if the scales tipped.

“That's what the consumer's going to want, is if I plant this, yeah, it might look good up until early August…but if it holds into August, that's even better,” Miller said.

The judges write detailed comments about the winners and share the results publicly by spring. Erickson said a third of the flowers in the garden are not on the market yet and were being tested as new plants this year. He would not be surprised if some of these flowers end up on shelves in the spring.

The garden started back in the ‘70s on a small plot near the Colorado State stadium. It only had about 100 varieties. But it didn’t take long before industry interest grew, and so did the garden. Now, in its 23rd year near the CSU Center for the Arts, it’s one of the largest university trial gardens in the nation.

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

Klett said the area’s unique climate can help predict how well flowers would do in other parts of the Mountain West.

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

Erickson has seen growers from Montana and other parts of the region eyeing the garden, since the plants in this garden endure a lot. That includes hail, temperature fluctuations and Fort Collins' elevation of 5,000 feet.

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

Klett hopes this knowledge can help consumers pick flowers that will withstand the elements and improve their success at gardening so that one of America’s greatest pastimes can live on.

“We don't want first-time gardeners to spend money and then not be successful in their gardening,” Klett said. “We want them to continue to do that.”

This year, the best new variety was the Begonia Stonehedge, chosen primarily for its stellar performance in both sun and shade, and in the ground and in containers. The best novelty plant award went to Centaurea Chrome Fountain for its surprise blossoms in late August and its unique silver color.

But gardeners and consumers agreed that the best in show was the Apricot Tricolor Dahlia. With its pink gradient color, lack of pests and abundance of pollinators, it was extremely popular.

“It also received, I think it was 25 or 28 flags (from consumer day), which was more than any of the other things out in the garden as well,” Erickson said. “That one has just drawn everyone's interest all year round.”

A closeup of pink flowers with bushy dark green leaves.
Emma VandenEinde
The Apricot Tricolor Dahlia was a fan favorite among gardeners and consumers, receiving the Best In Show award. Erickson said it is rare for both parties to agree, so this was a definite winner to everyone.

In addition to the annual trial, the university has a perennial trial in a flower bed just across the street. It’s a three-year trial for more than 300 varieties that receive the same evaluation and commentary as the annuals.

Miller and his team hope to build out both the annual and perennial gardens with even more varieties – like tulips and daffodils in the spring – soon. For now, they’ll keep experimenting so that consumers can have better, stronger flowers in their own backyards.

“People really kind of see the garden in a different way when they know that it's not just like a display,” Erickson said. “There's more research and information behind it…Where else do you see and get to visualize plants and how well they perform? This is one of the best spots.”

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, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the General Assignment Reporter and Back-Up Host for KUNC, here to keep you up-to-date on news in Northern Colorado — whether I'm out in the field or sitting in the host chair. From city climate policies, to businesses closing, to the creativity of Indigenous people, I'll research what is happening in your backyard and share those stories with you as you go about your day.
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