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Gardening Nurtures Our Inner Spirits

UGA Trial Garden Cultivates the Perfect Plants

During the frigid winter months, many gardeners are organizing and dreaming of adding to their landscapes, checking through catalogs and online sources and cramming parking lots of nurseries as they try to collect choice additions for their gardens for the first hint of warmer weather.

Spring buds and new growth herald a new season that most people are ready to embrace after the chill and barren colors of winter. How does the sight of buds and blooms beginning a new life cycle seem to touch so many people in so many different ways? Some people believe the connection between humans and nature began in the Garden of Eden with the creation of this world as we know it.

People nurturing plants for sustenance of the body as well as the spirit is reported far back in history. The oldest botanical garden still in operation is located in Northeastern Italy, the Orto Botanica di Padova, founded in 1545. The most ancient surviving plant in that garden is a Goeth palm, dating back to 1585. John Bartram established Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia in 1728 and, although a relative newcomer based on international gardens, it is the earliest in the U.S. that is still operating.

What determines the title of a Botanic Garden? These are institutions holding and cultivating documented collections of living plants (kingdom plantae) for the purpose of scientific research, conservation, display and education. Is it all about science and cash crops, or does the science also enhance the link to our inner spirits?

Where and how do new or hybrid species appear on the market today? How do plants end up in regions as diverse as the florae themselves? Some seeds are brought to areas by migrating birds, the shifting winds or even aboard shipments of materials that have nothing to do with the environment. Those random seed spreads may or may not thrive in areas where they land or may do more harm than good if they become invasive or are otherwise undesirable. This Trial Garden supplies the information needed to help make the decision to continue to market a species or to stop cultivating it in many regions.

One of the areas where the University of Georgia leads is with the Trial Gardens at UGA. This project garden began in 1982 and expanded to include the current three-fourths of an acre in 1994. The original greenhouses were built in the 1920’s and were upgraded with power and steam heated pipes in 1934. The public is welcome to visit seven days a week without an entrance fee. Parking is available in the McPhaul lot on the South Campus at the corner of Carlton Street and Sanford Drive in Athens.

Dr. John M. Ruter, director of UGA Trial Garden

Director John M. Ruter, Ph.D. and Armitage Endowed Professor of Horticulture at UGA, author of Landscaping With Conifers and Ginkgo for the Southeast, has led this plant research initiative since 2012. A native of Southern California, Dr. Ruter found his way to Tifton, Georgia 30 years ago, moving to Athens to oversee the introduction of new plants into this region. Enlisting four student assistants combined with about 4,000 volunteer hours has evolved into its current role of research, production and crop introduction. The international recognition of the Trial Gardens’ ability to nurture, monitor, document new species and the ability of established species to thrive in the conditions of the southeast has led to the current challenge of introducing new plants by submission of seeds, cuttings and plants by different companies from all over the world. While a fee is charged for this research and helps with costs, there are fundraising events such as the Plantapalooza plant sale, usually held in April.

With the pandemic concerns of gatherings across the country extended into 2021, the public is urged to check the website at before visiting the Trial Gardens and to check for any scheduled public sales or tours. That site also lists award-winning plants, annuals and perennials, new species, as well as those that have been integrated to create a hardier species. There is not an admittance fee, but donations are accepted. Please follow all recommended procedures for safety while visiting.

While the primary purpose of this facility may be scientific, there is more here than science. During the peak growing season, one can enjoy the beauty of the blooms sprawling across raised beds, hanging baskets cascading with color and fragrances, and benches set apart and still within the garden border.

Every inch is devoted to this plant haven as even the fences that ensure privacy are draped with vines and flowers. A rustic gazebo set in the middle of this lush exhibit completes a living masterpiece.

Voices are quieter, movements are slower as people walk through this vivid display on river rock pathways and admire everything from simple zinnias to plump succulents. Native asters and massive hybrid hibiscus co-exist, delighting all who visit with the varied textures and diversity.

On this visit, not only were honeybees, native bees, hummingbirds and skippers all around, but the Georgia state butterfly, the Tiger Swallowtail, was nectaring on the abundant and diverse blooms. Since most insecticides affect all insects, including the necessary and beneficial pollinators, they are not applied in this environment. The pollinators here benefit not only the plants they visit, but they also add still another natural element to this venture.

The seeds being researched begin in plug trays in the greenhouse by January, and into the raised beds that have been cleared of previous season’s plants and refilled with organic material similar to the soil in this region by April. Mulch is applied to retain moisture as well as to limit unwanted weeds in the beds that begin flourishing within days. Each planted area is marked with the plant’s genus, species, variety, height, length of flowering, as well as other data with the company name that submitted the seeds for monitoring.

The plants are observed every two weeks from June through September with specific ratings based on performance to determine whether or not to distribute the plants to the public. Perennials are monitored for up to three years to gather information on their expected performance. The collected information as well as accompanying photographs can be accessed by the public to help determine the desirability of incorporating these plants into their own gardens.

The technical information collected on site pertaining to each plant cultivated is priceless to people eager to add to their gardens and agribusinesses. The activity of pollinators at this site is also visible and invaluable. In the middle of this contemp- orary Athens haven dedicated to scientific research, records and data, the more subtle connection between nature and our spirits is likewise supported. We wait and enjoy new growth just as people long absent from this world tended, waited and celebrated those first green tips of spring.


Article and photos by Virginia Linch, published in Lakelife March/April 2021


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