Trial & Idea Garden End-of-Season Report

Posted: November 7, 2011

This definitely was a summer testing the survival skills of the fittest at the Penn State Master Gardener Trial & Idea Garden, located at the corner of Army Heritage Drive and Claremont Road on the grounds of Claremont Nursing & Rehabilitation Center.
Velocity Blue Salvia

Velocity Blue Salvia

Within two weeks of being planted in May by the Penn State Master Gardeners, who also maintain the garden, the flowers and vegetables were blown by historic high winds and pummeled by hail and daily thunderstorms while sweltering under unseasonably high temperatures in the 80s. After a June respite, temperatures topped 90 degrees and then 100 degrees by July, followed by a recovery period in August that was quickly washed out by historic rainfall throughout September.

So what held up best during this challenging growing season?

Performing best was the ‘Butterfly’ marguerite daisy (Argyranthemum frutescens). This is a bushy plant with bright yellow two-inch flowers. It grew to 30 inches high and 15 inches in width and sported healthy-looking leaves and flowers into October, one of the few specimens in the garden that refused to give in to the week-long drenching rains at the end of September.

Only one other plant could boast that kind of endurance, the ‘Queen of Sheba’ basil, an herb. Because this variety flowers from spring to fall with purple blooms that fade graciously, it makes an excellent selection for a flower border as well as an herb garden.

As always, a blue salvia, this time Salvia farinacea Velocity™ Blue, was a strong performer, although it started to decline about mid-September. It reached 30 inches high, 23 inches wide, shooting up flower stalks with three-inch long blooms.

But while Velocity™ Blue proved to be a bushy plant with hundreds of blooms, the Salvia coccinea ‘Lady in Red’ was far less attractive, appearing scraggly and hanging onto unsightly flowers.

Two other strong performers among the annual flowers were the Vinca Titan™ Dark Red (Catharanthus roseus) and Phlox Intensia® Blueberry. Vincas have always been great performers at the Trial & Idea Garden, which sits in the open sun, but this vinca, along with the Vinca Cora® White, underperformed this summer, probably because of the excessive water; their usually perky flowers tended to appear limp and worn.

The phlox would have appeared higher on the list had it lasted longer. At only eight inches high with hundreds of well-distributed flowers ranging from light to bright violet, it would make a great, bolder alternative to purple alyssum as a border plant.

Most disappointing perhaps were this year’s widely heralded black petunias. Black Velvet (Petunia xhybrida ‘Balpevac’) is indeed black, while Phantom (Petunia xhybrida ‘Balpephan’) is black with yellow striping. Neither variety seemed to have enough flowers to have significant impact on their own; indeed, in using them, it would be important to pair them with complementary plants that would heighten their drama.

The biggest disappointments were Scented Geranium ‘Citronella’ which actually did smell like citronella and had unusual, pretty ruffled leaves that turned brown and looked, well, dead; and Flowering Tobacco ‘Perfume Deep Purple’ (Nicotiana alata), a weedy-looking plant for use at the back of the border which put on a limited show and struggled against insect damage and the elements.

One perennial, Lavandula stoechas ‘Boysenberry Ruffles’, was included this year. It was very healthy throughout the entire season and can be a good filler or border plant. It is green rather than a gray-blue and stands about a foot high. No problems were observed, but its rosy flowers, at one-half inch wide and an inch high, are few, barely noticeable, and not to be counted on for show.

The vegetables were a production of beauty and the beast. The beauties were the pepper ‘Blushing Beauty’ and sweet pepper ‘Gypsy’. Both are yellow peppers—the former a somewhat rounded shape, the latter elongated—produced in abundance on plants with pretty glossy green leaves that were still producing in October.

The beasts were the grape tomato ‘Sugary’ and the ‘Yellow Pear’ tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum). These plants grew large, the former to about five feet high and three feet wide, the latter about a foot higher and wider. Both produced fruit too numerous to count, the ‘Sugary’ providing a bounty of red grape tomatoes and the ‘Yellow Pear’ yielding fruit about one inch wide by almost two inches long that resembled...yellow pears. Sadly, while the tomatoes continued to look good into October, the plants did not; the leaves started dying in August and the plants were largely defoliated by the end of September, not a pretty sight.