Trialing program offers key insights for gardeners

Erin Schanen

Real plant trialing, as opposed to the “trials” I do when plant companies send me sample plants to try, must be tedious business. True trials involve copious notes and thorough observation, not to mention spreadsheets and often lengthy summary reports. They also take patience.

Very little of that fits with my idea of enjoyable gardening, so I’m grateful for those who do such trials.

One plant trialing program that I pay close attention to is the plant evaluation program at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Trials manager Richard Hawke runs a tight ship on the evaluations, testing perennials for four years, shrubs and vines for six years and trees for seven or more years. Several varieties are planted in the testing area, given a bit of water to get established and left to fend for themselves against pests, disease and bad weather.

I recently visited the plant evaluation area at the garden, which is technically the same zone as much of Ozaukee County but clearly has a slightly warmer microclimate than some of our area. What was remarkable was how imperfect it was, which was particularly notable in a botanic garden where almost everything looks top-notch.

There were many holes in the ongoing perennial trial area, marked only by plant tags serving as gravestones. I took note of the names by both the empty spaces and the flourishing plants next to them to get a good idea of what might work best in my garden. The Astrantia trials seemed to show that some varieties work very well and others not at all, with very little middle ground.

An extensive Echinacea trial seemed to show what I think many gardeners have figured out — these are not often long-lived perennials,  and what we may think is the same plant is often a seedling of the original plant.

Two trials stood for the size of the plants as well as the space dedicated to them in the garden. Sanguisorba, a perennial I’ve been doing my own “trials” on by buying every one I can get my hands on and seeing what happens, was impressive in just how many varieties were being trialed. Although they weren’t blooming yet, two in particular stood out for their robustness: ‘Lilac Squirrel,’ which I started growing after I heard Hawke mention it a couple years ago as showing early promise in the trial, and ‘Sweet Caroline,’ which formed an almost shrublike mass.

The Baptisia (false indigo) trial plants were at their peak, with almost all in full bloom except for a few that clearly bloomed earlier. It was impossible to pick favorites, but one called ‘Brownie Points’ caught my eye for its purple and cinnamon colored flower spikes. Another, called ‘Ivory Towers,’ actually stood out because I took note of it elsewhere in the garden. Creamy white flowers bloom and wonderfully contrasting purple stems on what seems to be a thinner, very upright plant. It was quickly added to my must-have plant list.

You can see results from previous plant trials at, or better yet, visit the trial garden yourself to get a sneak peek of what makes the cut.


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