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Budding Collaboration

IN LATE SPRING, the four-acre demonstration plots behind the West Madison Agricultural Research Station turn into a patchwork quilt of color, as hundreds of varieties of flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruits bloom. The show delights many visitors who roam the gardens. And lately, it’s been wowing commercial flower growers, as well.

In 2006, the Wisconsin Commercial Flower Growers, which represents the state’s multimillion-dollar flower industry, forged an agreement with the research station to test flower varieties in its trial gardens. The idea was to expose alluring varieties to Wisconsin’s elements, something many commercial growers don’t have the space or facilities to do.

“We can grow something in the greenhouse and it looks beautiful in the greenhouse. But if it doesn’t perform well outside, (customers) are not going to be happy,” says John Esser, executive secretary of the growers’ group. “And that’s where this research station really helps.”

Growers pick the plant species and supply the station with seedlings. Research staff and interns then plant, nurture and monitor the flowers throughout the growing season. At the end of the trial, they produce an annual report that ranks the varieties in six key categories—foliage appearance, flower display, weather tolerance, site considerations, comparison to standard varieties and an overall garden rating. They also record anecdotal observations: About a Cloud nine Blue Bacopa flower—one of last year’s best performers—the staff raved, “Best Bacopa in the series, nice flowers, good foliage, kept blooming.” On the other hand, a Bermuda Sky Bacopa didn’t stand up so well. “Delicate plants browning/yellowing, lacking profusion of blooms,” staffers noted.

This kind of information offers a great read on how flowers will perform in customers’ gardens, explains Esser. He says that growers use the trial gardens’ sneak preview to help plan purchase orders.

“So often, the information that we had was from trials performed in California, which doesn’t really apply very much in Wisconsin,” he says. “From that standpoint [the trial gardens] really helps the commercial greenhouses in the state to determine what varieties they want to grow.”

In fact, flower growers have grown so attached to the program that this year members voted to devote a portion of their annual dues to the West Madison facility. They also have secured a state grant to fund two summer interns and a Web site that will share the team’s findings.

“The interns are kind of what makes this thing go,” says Bruce Sadowski, who owns Groth’s Country Gardens, a greenhouse business based in Cedarburg. “What we learned last year when we came down there and looked is that the interns are very knowledgeable; they’ve got all the knowledge of growing them (the plants) through the season and how they’ve looked from day to day and they’re able to give that information to the growers.”