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Science in full bloom

September 28, 2010
By Paul Miller and Gretchen Menand

On a cloudy, cool day in early June, Kara Crist, a senior in landscape horticulture, kneels down and regards a row of impatiens growing at Colorado State's Annual Flower Trial Garden off Remington Street.

25,000-square-foot, three-acre garden

Landscape Horticulture student Kara Crist and PERC Director and Annual Flower Trial Garden Coordinator Jim Klett talk about research at the Annual Flower Trial Garden.

“I think impatiens are so elegant,” she says. “The colors are simple but beautiful, and the flowers are gorgeous. Close up, you can see the flower petals sparkle.”

As undergraduate coordinator of the garden, Crist knows her flowers – or rather, the hundreds of different annuals and perennials that fill the 25,000-square-foot, three-acre garden. On this day, she has her hands full moving plants from nearby CSU greenhouses to the garden.

“I’ll be more relaxed when all the planting is done,” she says. “It’s pretty stressful until that’s done but satisfying to see the results and to watch the flowers grow over the summer.”

“Kara is one of the best students I’ve advised in my 30 years here at CSU,” says Professor James Klett, who coordinates the trial garden and is director of CSU’s Plant Environmental Research Center, or PERC. Klett notes that the success of the garden also depends on his research associate, David Staats; four to eight students who are employed year-round; and volunteers from the Larimer County Master Gardener program.

The yearly trial garden program started at PERC in 1971, then moved in 2000 to a much larger open space west of the University Center for the Arts.

Beauty with a purpose

But behind the flowers – a visual, scented wealth of 1,200 varieties of annuals and 125 perennials – lies serious research. While flower lovers may visit to simply enjoy the displays, the garden serves as the largest flower test area in the state and one of the five largest in the United States.

Students from all disciplines, including mechanical engineering student Moises Haro, help tend the gardens on Remington Street.

“The research evaluates annual flowers to see how well they perform in Colorado’s high light intensity and low moisture,” Klett says.

Last year, 22 seed and vegetative companies from the United States and overseas participated in the trials. After a full summer of care by CSU’s horticulture team, plants were ready to be judged in August and September to determine the year’s “Best Of” winners. Varieties are rated on plant vigor, uniformity, floriferousness (ability to bear flowers), and tolerance to environmental conditions. About 100 judges evaluated the plants.

“The results are very important to gardeners and commercial growers,” Klett says. “Quite a few representatives from seed companies travel to campus during evaluation days to see how their plants fare.”

One top pick in 2009 was chosen from the same genus that Crist admires. Tamarinda Shocking Pink, a New Guinea impatien, stood out from many entries in the trial for maintaining strong flower power throughout the season and for flowers that rise above the foliage.

Watering wisdom

Horticulture crews organize the garden according to plant water requirements in a water-saving measure called hydrozoning.

Two years ago, a different planting approach was initiated at the garden. Instead of installing plants alphabetically by name, horticulture crews organized the garden according to plant water requirements in a water-saving measure called hydrozoning. The irrigation method delivers customized water amounts to plants requiring low (xeric), medium, and high moisture.

CSU researchers separate flowers according to annual and perennial life cycles. Annual flowers complete their lifecycle in just one growing season and are typically characterized by showy, season-long color. By contrast, perennials grow for three or more years and tend to have shorter blooming seasons.

“Overall design and layout of the garden are really important,” Crist says. “It’s almost an art form to juggle the requirements of all the plants and meet the needs of growers. It takes a discerning eye, tons of research, and a lot of work to get the best results.”

For nearly 40 years, only annuals graced the gardens until Klett added perennials three years ago. Other recent improvements include expanded flower beds, renovation of the garden’s gazebo, additional benches for visitors, and containers for testing potted varieties. A pergola on the north side tests shade-loving plants, and new beds with two-year perennial trials were planted across the street near the west side of the University Center for the Arts.

Aesthetics at work

After a full summer of care by CSU's horticulture team, plants were ready to be judged in August and September to determine the year's "Best Of" winners.

Although research, education, and support for students’ future careers and for growers are important, the sheer beauty of the garden is, in the end, what makes the area inviting and peaceful. As he sits enjoying the shade of the gazebo on a sunny day, Staats, who’s been a landscape horticulturist at CSU for 20 years, talks about an unusual petunia called Supertunia Vista Bubblegum that grows two to three times taller than most petunias. Typical petunias are 6 to 12 inches high. “If you know where to look, you can see it clear across the garden,” he says.

Decades after leaving a banking career in Denver, Staats is still glad he spends his days digging in the dirt and keeping the garden growing.

“I used to work down in a bank vault with no windows,” he says. “At the end of the month, I turned in balance sheets, and that was it. “Now I plant flowers, repair irrigation lines, improve the landscape. I’m doing something that people appreciate, something aesthetically pleasing. And it changes just about every day, all the growth and color, all summer long.”

Story originally published in Colorado State Magazine, Fall 2010.