There’s one sure way to find out how different types of flowers will grow in this climate.
Plant 'em and step back.
For years, that’s what the Penn State Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center has done at its Auction Road facility.
The results of the so-called “flower trials” are showcased for commercial buyers and other agribusiness officials at an annual field day.
It’s an invaluable opportunity for suppliers of seeds and “plugs” (starter plants) to show wholesale growers, brokers, arboretum owners and retailers how their products will fare locally.
“We’ve surveyed the attendees for more than 10 years, and 90 percent say they use this as their primary tool to make their purchasing decisions for next year,” said Sinclair Adam.
Underscoring the importance of field day, a record 304 people from as far away as Germany and California attended this year’s event, held in late July. The throng included 24 people from Stauffers of Kissel Hill.
Penn State has been testing flower varieties since 1933. In 1992, the testing was shifted from the University Park campus to the Auction Road location.
Adam, an extension educator in floraculture and trial director, said the Auction Road trial results benefit more than just the agribusiness officials who attend the field day.
The local findings are among the results of 20-plus trials nationwide that get fed into a University of Georgia database that’s available only to the agricultural industry.
But the trial here helps consumers, too, noted Adam.
Anyone can view the Auction Road results at trialgardenspsu.com, available to the public at no charge.
Consumers also can come out to view the two-acre site, as well as attend seminars, at a field day of their own. This year’s also was held in late July.
What visitors to the flower trial saw this year was the culmination of a tremendous undertaking, involving about 130 people — including 100 master gardeners.
Some 41 companies supplied varieties of plants to this year’s field trial, including a Smoketown firm, Green Leaf Plants.
Eight of the suppliers were newcomers to the trial this year.
They submitted 1,176 varieties of plants, making the Auction Road flower trial one of the biggest on the East Coast, said Adam.
The vast majority of the varieties were annuals; three of each annual variety were grown.
In cases where suppliers sent additional plants, those were sent to other showcase sites.
Three of the new sites this year include Chanticleer Gardens in Wayne, Delaware County; Hershey Gardens; and the Larson Agricultural Research Center in Rock Springs, near State College.
However, a record 99 varieties sent to Auction Road were perennials. For the first time, the field trial will be extended over the winter to collect data on how they fare in 2015.
In another tweak, next year’s field trial will be expanded to collect insect information on pollinating plants.
Which is not to say Adam is done envisioning the future of the flower trial.
"I would like to expand the program," he said, "and increase the diversity of entries."
What did Adam see this year?
Many of the plants showed outstanding performance.
"Portulacas all do well in this region," Adam said. "They are good for our area, even in the heat."
He said the Pazzazz fuchsia did very well, too.
The salvias, with their feathery foliage and towering blooms ranging in color from light blue to a deep violet, are always strong, Adam said.
The hot-orange colored “Sombrero Adobe Orange Balsomador” echinacea was one of the best-looking color blooms this year.
Other varieties have less to brag about.
"Lobelias do not do well at the (Auction Road) farm," Adam said. "They only look good early, in May, but not the rest of the summer."
Adam, who joined the Extension Center in September, previously taught plant and soil science at the University of Vermont.
He also operated a nursery from 1989 to 2010 and has experience with plant breeding, especially using native plants.