Blooming and Blossoming

MAFES research keeps gardens growing

By: Grace Jones

and Blossoming

Annual flower and vegetable trials at the MAFES Truck Crops Branch Experiment Station inform gardeners and the plant industry on the best varieties for Mississippi landscapes. (Photo by Dominique Belcher)

In the blossoming town of Crystal Springs, Mississippi, gardening trials are springing up results in top-performing plants. At the MAFES Trucks Crops Branch Experiment Station, Mississippi State University scientists have cultivated the Ornamental Trial Garden to determine which plants are top performers each year. Their research helps gardeners and the plant industry find the best landscape plants for the state.

Dr. Shaun Broderick, associate extension/research professor at Truck Crops, and his team of horticulturists evaluate the performance of annuals and perennials in their trial gardens for growers and gardeners.

"Each year we receive new plant material that will be released to the public the following year. We look for what plant material will grow well in Mississippi and what underperforms or is not a great choice for homeowners and landscapers in our state," Broderick said. "We evaluate each plant entry using three major criteria, including plant health; how floriferous, or how many flowers develop; and the landscape appeal."

This year, the team is assessing both plant annuals and perennials in the trial garden. They plant materials in early to mid-April and care for them in a way that would mimic how gardeners normally tend a garden. Other than a soil test to pick the type and amount of fertilizer for the plants, the team does not use advanced gardening techniques, like heavy pesticide application, and tends to the gardens in a home-growing atmosphere, with mostly watering, weeding, and treating for fire ants.

"In the horticulture industry, the thing that keeps people gardening is success, especially when someone is new to gardening. Oftentimes, the reason someone fails at gardening and then loses the motivation to continue to garden is because they are planting materials that are not well acclimated to this climate," Broderick said. "So, a goal of these trials is to help steer consumer demand and the horticulture industry towards plants that thrive in this region. Plants that thrive here increase the success and profits for growers while providing consumers with planting materials that will lead to a more beautiful Mississippi."

The trial gardens were first established in 2001, and since 2015 have been under Broderick's direction. Known for providing consumers with successful planting tips, the trial gardens have grown into more than just research.

Broderick created a website that provides comprehensive photos and data about the trial gardens that is available for anyone to access throughout the year. This resource has been accessed by thousands of people to keep up with the gardens and track the progress of the plants. This gives the trial garden room to blossom into community engagement opportunities with the researchers.

"I am excited for the gardens this year; we held a Summer Field Day in June. We brought the public, garden clubs, and gardeners in and provided everyone with the opportunity to mark which flowers were their favorites in the trial garden," Broderick said. "This not only helped us collect consumer preference data, but it also gave us the opportunity to share our gardens with the community. Most of the cultivars have never been seen by the public, and this gave consumers a sneak peek at some of the latest plant material the horticulture industry has to offer."

The trial garden is a way for the public to access survival and growing rate of plants if they want to try and integrate the plants into their own gardens. Broderick noted the popularity the perennial plants have gained over the past few years. While perennials were not widely planted in many landscapes a few years ago, they have grown in popularity to the point that they are included in many commercial and city landscapes as growers have learned how to successfully cultivate more perennials than in years past. The trial gardens have tested a variety of perennials, such as Cuphea, Phlox, Delosperma, and Salvia. Aside from perennials, the trials also include annuals such as Begonias, Petunias, and Cyperus. Researchers have also assessed vegetables and herbs including tomato plants, preserving some of the historical significance tomatoes have had, since Crystal Spring was once known as the "Tomatropolis of the World" for being the largest shipper of tomatoes in the United States. The gardens are also used to study new plant materials that haven't been released to the public yet.

"I love seeing new plant material before it is released; it is exciting to see the culmination of breeding work around the world in ornamental plants," Broderick said. "Since the beginning of my horticulture career, working in a garden center, I have always been excited about unloading semis with new plants. Then I was put in charge of ordering perennials, and I have seen what the industry has to offer today is far superior to what it was just 15 years ago, which is part of why I have started a perennial trial garden."

Clay Cheroni, facilities coordinator at the MAFES Truck Crops Branch Experiment Station, has worked with trial gardens for sixteen years and assists Broderick to help the trials be as successful as they can.

"Our gardens are an opportunity for people to come and see beautiful materials that do well, which they don't know about and are not yet carried in the stores," Cheroni said. "I hope that these gardens inspire people, when they see them, to have variety in what they grow. We have a long history of successful gardens, so I want to continue to produce good results for Mississippi and help companies get that information so people and gardeners can see how their gardens can look their best each year."

Cheroni explained that each year companies send plants to be tested in the trial garden as a hands-on approach to learn how the climate will treat the plants and if they would survive in a home-growing environment. The gardens hold about 200 different entries a year and the plant material range from groundcover to taller plants up to four feet high.

"I have loved seeing all the varieties of plants we grow here. There is such a diverse range of what we know will flourish as they grow, and it is great to see a plant and know its potential and then see it blossom and succeed," Cheroni said. "That is also why we encourage people to keep up with the gardens and their progress online, and we are always happy to have people walking through the gardens at the station during our open hours. Anyone is invited and welcome to come."

To check out the trial garden website visit:

The trial gardens are supported by the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station with plant materials from Ball FloraPlant©, Darwin Perennials©, PanAmerican Seed©, Kieft Seed, Plants Nouveau, Proven Winners©, Selecta One, Terra Nova Nurseries, and Walters Gardens.

Our gardens are an opportunity for people to come and see beautiful materials that do well, which they don't know about and are not yet carried in the stores. I hope that these gardens inspire people, when they see them, to have variety in what they grow.

Clay Cheroni

Shaun Broderick examines a row of planters at the MAFES Trucks Crops Branch Experiment Station. (Photo by Dominique Belcher)

Shaun Broderick examines a row of planters at the MAFES Trucks Crops Branch Experiment Station. (Photo by Dominique Belcher)

Behind the Science

Shaun Broderick

Shaun Broderick

Associate Extension/Research Professor

Education: B.S., Genetics, M.S., Genetics and Biotechnology, Brigham Young University; Ph.D., Horticulture and Crop Science, The Ohio State University

Years At MSU: 7

Focus: Ornamental horticulture

Passion At Work: My research goals are to improve the Mississippi horticultural industry by identifying and developing good plant material for this region, promoting it to producers and consumers, and helping them improve cultural practices.