Saturday, March 26, 2011

Plants That Inspire at the Costa Farms Trial Gardens

Annual trial gardens at Costa Farms
Of all the experiences attending the Costa Farms Social Summit in Miami, the most difficult for me to process was when Dr. Kate Santos (known as "Dr. Kate" around Costa), director of research and development for Costa Farms, shared this simple fact with us: The garden you see in the photo above was planted in November. Let me repeat that for all of you midwestern gardeners who may have glossed over that last sentence. The garden you see in the photo above was planted in November. It is the spring annual trial garden at Costa Farms, the place where the growers at Costa test new bedding and container plant selections from breeders like Ball Horticulture and Dummen. The results of these trial gardens help determine the new varieties that Costa Farms will grow and offer to retailers across the country.

One of the display beds at the Costa Farms annual trial gardens.
Walking into the trial gardens less than 24 hours after leaving a wintry Illinois where hues of grey and brown amount to color, I was stunned by the flowing beds of pansies, petunias, geraniums and other annuals that give life to our late spring and summer gardens in the north. I didn't appreciate just how much the climate in southern Florida differs from ours until Dr. Kate explained that this garden would be ripped out in May and replaced with plants that can handle the heat and humidity of the Miami summers.

New Guinea Impatiens 'Magnum Purple' (from Dummen)
Dr. Kate led us around the gardens, pointing out many of the new varieties. She held a flower from 'Magnum Purple', a New Guinea Impatiens cultivar from Dummen, in her hands to give us a true sense of the huge flowers on this variety. These impatiens can be grown in full sun or part shade and can form a 12" mound of dark green foliage that is covered with 3" magenta/purple blooms. 'Magnum Purple' is definitely a plant I'd like to try in single-specimen containers or as an accent plant in my mixed borders.

Argyranthemum 'Beauty Yellow' (from Westflowers)
Among the trial plant selections from Westflowers, the upright blooms of Argyranthemum 'Beauty Yellow' stole the show. The bright, banana-yellow petals emerging upward from yellow-orange centers made this daisy shine on a cloudy day. Each plant on this full-sun annual held hundreds of blooms. 'Beauty Yellow' is bred to be more heat tolerant than other Argyranthemum, so promises to be a good quality plant into late summer. Combined with blue or white flowers, 'Beauty Yellow' could be a real show-stopper in the garden.

Gazania SunBathers 'Sunset' (from NuFlora International)
Last summer, I grew Gazania 'Big Kiss Yellow Flame' in my garden with terrible results. The plants were beautiful in the garden center, but didn't last for more than a few weeks. I swore I'd never grow it again. My bias against Gazania was immediately reversed when I saw 'Sunset' in the Costa Farms trial gardens. A variety in the SunBathers series from NuFlora International, 'Sunset' is simply gorgeous. Bright orange ray flowers surround smaller tufted center petals, creating a sunflower-like bloom. If I can find 'Sunset' locally this summer, Gazania will have a second chance in my home garden.

Petunia Cascadias™ 'Great Spark', Petunia Cascadias™ 'Bicolor Cabernet' (from Danzinger, in background) and Geranium Graziosa™ 'Royal Salmon' (from Dummen, in foreground)
While most of the Costa Farms trial gardens are simple rows of specimen plants, a portion of the gardens are designed to display plants in a garden setting. My favorite area was a grouping of two varieties of Cacadias™ petunias from Danzinger -- 'Great Spark' (lavender) and 'Bicolor Cabernet' (magenta and white) -- edged with Graziosa™ 'Royal Salmon' zonal geraniums from Dummen. The color combination was astounding en masse and up close. I'd never seen zonal geraniums used as successfully as an edging plant, but the compact habit of 'Royal Salmon' is perfectly suited for front-of-the border use.

Graziosa™ Geraniums and Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla)
The Graziosa™ series geraniums also made excellent container plants, as pictured here in front of one of the Norfolk Island Pines (Araucaria heterophylla) that accent the trial gardens. Seeing these Norfolk Island Pines in a landscape setting was a bit surreal, as they are the same species that can be found around the holidays decorated as indoor Christmas trees in colder parts of the country. Northern gardeners are lucky to grow one of these trees to 6-8 feet as a houseplant, so seeing 15-25 foot specimens in the Costa Trial gardens was a real treat.

Though it was difficult to return to the drab hues of the Midwest after visiting the Costa Farms annual trial gardens without feeling an increased sense of impatience for our own spring and summer color, I wouldn't have passed up the opportunity to learn about these new varieties from Dr. Kate Santos. After our tour, we had a bit of free time to explore and take photos in the gardens. The excitement in the group was as palpable as the thunderstorm growing in the clouds over our heads. There are few things more enjoyable than roaming a garden with other gardeners, talking about the plants that catch our eye and inspire us.

I visited Costa Farms as a part of their first-ever Costa Farms Social Summit, along with Justin Hancock of Better Homes and Gardens, Steve Bender of Southern Living, Stacey Hirvela of Martha Stewart Living, Judy Lowe of Christian Science Monitor, Aaron Able of Apartment Therapy, Helen Yoest of Gardening with Confidence, and Brenda Haas of BG Garden

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful! And yes, you really should give Gazanias another go. I've grown them for several years and love them! These tufted centers are interesting. I'll keep my eyes open for them.

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