Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Variety trials: how to do it yourself

After 25 years, Professor Pat Holloway is no longer conducting vegetable and flower variety trials at UAF, but at the Greenhouse Conference Jan. 25 in Fairbanks she shared with growers how to take on such work themselves.

“The first thing I do is go to the library,” Holloway said. “I read books about plant explorers; maybe there is some obscure thing in the Tibetan mountains we could try.”

Holloway cautioned that she doesn’t rely on the latest books or newest topics. “Horticulture has a fashion statement, things are in and out,” she said. “I go back to 1833 and find plants that might be interesting to resurrect and bring back to the horticulture trade.”

Every now and then something weird pops up that proves successful. Holloway found Chinese medicinal herbs and showed them to the Herb Bunch, volunteers who take care of herb plots at GBG. “You can get good tips from oddball books,” she said.

Another important thing to recognize is the unique weather conditions of Fairbanks. “I remind myself every year of our climate,” Holloway said. Hardiness zones are inaccurate, she said. “Somebody from the lower 48 who doesn’t know anything about Alaska does them. There is a year-round cycle of how plants adapt to the environment. Refresh yourself on what this means.”

Another thing on Holloway’s mind is how snow affects plants. “Snow is your friend,” she said, “your dear friend. It makes an incredible difference.” (Snow keeps plants and roots warmer.)

Holloway’s advice for commercial catalogs is to look at the newest selling points and determine if the distributor is in-house or contract. “Breeder-owned catalogs are fun,” Holloway said. She recommended Dowdeswell’s Delphinium Ltd.

Society exchanges are also a good way to get seeds or plants. “The grandmama of them all is the North American Rock Garden Society.” She also likes the Alaska Native Plant Society and the Alaska Rock Garden Society. “It is worth a trip to Anchorage when they have their sale,” she said.

Other favorites are the Alaska Pioneer Fruit Growers Association and The Chileman.

“Join organizations and attend conferences,” Holloway urged. “I encourage anybody growing new plants to join the International Plant Propagators Society.”

The American Peony Society is the official registrar for new cultivars and makes seeds available from top peony breeders in the U.S.

Botanical gardens are another avenue to pursue. Holloway said when traveling serious growers should visit botanical gardens and in most situations the workers will probably be willing to share plant materials, but she advised that people need to know the Latin names of plants and have knowledge about the plants they are interested in.

Another valuable source is the U.S.D.A. Germplasm Resources Information Network, which provides small amounts of breeding material to growers.

When Alaska lost its gene bank in June, Holloway stepped in to save materials to grow at the GBG, including rhubarb, red currant, black currant and gooseberries.

“There is nothing wrong with being a plant explorer,” Holloway said. “You have to do your homework and know your geography.”

Holloway warned the audience to be wary of bringing invasive plants to their gardens. “Know what you are growing and know the scientific names and life history so you can equate it to Alaska conditions. Respect private property, patent laws and public lands. Pay attention and destroy plants that are invasive.”

At the GBG, Holloway dealt with 3,000 plants a year and the worst invasive plants in that history were Siberian rocket, milk thistle and bladder campion.

Visit the Georgeson Botanical Garden website for more information.

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