Expanded Trial Gardens 2012= More Garden Info for You

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Montana vegetable garden
At the Montana growing station, a trial garden provides information for gardeners in the Intermountain West.

By Kelly Smith Trimble

The Bonnie Plants Trial Garden expanded in 2011, its second year, to include three locations across country—Alabama, Montana, and New Hampshire—representing a range of gardening conditions. It was another successful season, with valuable information gathered for our company and our customers. Here is a wrap-up of the season.

Alabama Trial Garden

tomatoes in black pots
Two plants of each variety were grown in black pots on white ground cover in the Alabama garden.

As in 2010, all of our varieties were planted in large black pots, but in 2011, we reduced the number of each plant from five to two. Mack Sweeney and Jye Rainey manage the trial garden in Alabama. Mack says that production was just as high this year as last, but that the plants seemed to grow a little less tall, likely due to the use of white groundcover rather than black. This reduced the intense heat on the Alabama trial garden, where we harvest for four months or more during hot summers.

One heat-loving crop is the big hit of the season. “The sweet potato bed was really neat,” Mack says. “We harvested 180 pounds of potatoes from one 4 x 8 raised bed.”

sweet potato bed
4 x 8 bed of sweet potatoes

This year, we also planted over 40 (4 x 4) raised beds. The plans for some of these raised-bed gardens are available on our website: Easy Summer Garden, Fresh and Early Salad Garden, and Fresh and Handy Herb Garden. We’ll be adding plans for several of the other gardens soon, so look for them on our website and in our free gardening newsletter.

New Hampshire Trial Garden

children picking Bonnie Grape tomato
Deke's children help harvest Bonnie Grape tomato in New Hampshire.

This year, Bonnie Field Representative Deke Jackson started a trial garden in Canterbury, New Hampshire. Deke’s job involves traveling all over the country and consulting with the managers at various Bonnie Plants growing stations. “I want to be able to point station managers to varieties that grow well in their regions,” he explains. “That way, Bonnie can offer plants that are going to be a success for gardeners.”

Much of Deke’s career and growing experience has been in the greenhouse, so “going outside was eye-opening,” he says. Chipmunks, hornworms, and blossom end rot top Deke’s list of the challenges he faced this season, which should sound familiar to most home gardeners.

Deke and his family planted the garden on Memorial Day weekend, including nearly every crop that Bonnie Plants sells. This holiday marks the beginning of growing season for many gardeners, though the soil sometimes can still be too cold in Northern regions. As in Alabama, plants are trialed in large black pots in the half-acre garden in New Hampshire. “By using the pot,” Deke says, “we didn’t have to wait for the ground to warm up.”

Deke planted approximately 190 tomato plants in the New Hampshire garden. He mentions some of his top picks for tomatoes and the reason why. “Bush Early Girl was covered in fruit. It produced so much, so early,” Deke says. “Black Prince produced really well for an heirloom…20 pounds of fruit. And Better Bush is just a beautiful plant. Good size, habit, and extra early bearing.”

At the end of the season, Deke co-hosted a Salsa Party for the local community. Though the threat of Hurricane Irene reduced attendance, several folks came out to taste test tomatoes and peppers from the garden. Homestead tomato won the taste test due to its “well-balanced flavor.”

Highlander Cattle
Highlander cattle

After a few days of frost in early September, Deke is taking up the garden and preparing for the cold days ahead. As usual, his family is helping, but he has a few unexpected helpers as well. “I have two friends, the Highlander cattle, and they love all the tomatoes I give them,” Deke says. “They see my car pull up to the garden and wander over to see what I have to offer. One of their favorites is watermelon that the woodchuck have eaten on.”

Montana Trial Garden

Montana Garden Plastic Cover
Plants grown under plastic cover produced better in Montana.

After a rocky start, a new trial garden was started in Montana this spring. Station Manager Bill Furry and his family planted the garden at the beginning of June, but a huge snowmelt and broken levees flooded the entire nursery on June 7. “The trial garden was underwater,” Bill says. Though he was discouraged, Bill replanted a smaller garden on June 14, encouraged by his wife Michele.

Like Alabama and New Hampshire, Bill planted in black pots, but he also planted in the ground under plastic tunnels. “In the Intermountain West, serious gardeners grow under plastic,” he explains.

Though Bill has gardened for many years, it was his first time to grow in containers. Montana skies are famously big and clear, but this actually proved a challenge for the pots, with heat building up and scorching some plants. He remedied the situation by using a method called pot-in-pot, which is just what it sounds like. An outer pot absorbs some of the heat before transferring to the inner, soil-filled pot.

Overall, though, Bill found that the plants in the ground and under the tunnel did much better in the Montana garden. The plastic traps heat and keeps the garden at a more constant temperature, counteracting the wide temperature swings experienced in a Montana summer. That’s a pretty important bit of knowledge for gardeners where the harvest season only last five weeks, as opposed to the four months of harvest common in Alabama. Our project for a row cover hoop house offers a smaller version of the technique Bill used.

The Furrys have harvested 150 pounds of tomatoes and at least 60 pounds of peppers. Pumpkins and winter squash are starting to ripen, and Bill and Michele expect a classroom of third graders to visit the farm for a pumpkin-picking party soon. “We’ll have them out after the first frost,” Bill says, “which could happen any day now.” One of the tips Bill learned about growing pumpkins and might share with the third-graders is to stop watering them a few weeks before harvest. The stress helps the pumpkins — as well as melons — to harden and ripen.

Picking Tomatoes
Mack Sweeney and Stan Cope, President of Bonnie Plants, pick tomatoes and measure the yield from each plant.

As we gather and sort through data from the three trial gardens from 2011, we’ll update our website with more specific information about individual plants. We learned a lot this season and look forward to sharing more of that knowledge with you!