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US (TX): Horticultural field day draws ornamental, vegetable gardeners

White pentas were among the highlights for Kathy Harris, one of the more than 300 attendees at the recent East Texas Horticultural Field Day at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Overton.


The 25th annual East Texas Horticultural Field Day featured more than 500 ornamental and dozens of vegetable varieties. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Adam Russell)

Harris made the trip from Dallas after an invitation from her aunt, Patsy Lancaster, of Hughes Springs. Lancaster and Harris are garden enthusiasts who share information, growing tips and techniques each year.

When Lancaster heard about the annual field trial through her Morris County Master Gardener program, she knew it would be up her niece’s alley. This year was their first visit to the field day, and they plan to return next year.

“It’s laid out very well, and everyone is so helpful and knowledgeable,” Morris said. “We are both very interested in flowers and vegetable gardening, so the variety selection is amazing, and to see how well some of these plants can perform is inspirational.”

Dr. Charles Long, AgriLife center director, said the come-and-go field day showcases the trial gardens at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Bruce McMillan Jr. Foundation East Farm. Long said the annual event always draws a mix of professionals and amateurs who are interested in and appreciate horticulture, specifically ornamental bedding plants.

“We appreciate all the attendees traveling to participate in the field day and to view our trial gardens,” he said. “It was good to see new and familiar faces for the 25th annual event. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves as much as we enjoyed having them visit.”

Dr. Brent Pemberton, AgriLife Research ornamental horticulturist in Overton, started the field trials and field day in 1993 to meet the needs of commercial seed companies, local nursery managers and gardening enthusiasts who wanted more information about how varieties performed in the region. The field day has become an opportunity to showcase plants and educate the public about the conditions under which they perform best.

Pemberton said the field day included varieties that have been popular for years, but also gave attendees a glimpse of bedding plants not yet available to the public.

Cool temperatures and flooding followed by extreme heat presented challenging conditions during the trials this year, he said.

“It’s been a tough year overall,” he said. “The cool, wet spring meant a late planting, and then temperatures got unseasonably hot earlier than usual. It’s been challenging for plants to get established, but that’s what gardeners deal with some years. It’s good to see what survived and what performed well under these conditions.”

Pemberton said challenging conditions are what make each annual field trial important for research and growers that benefit from the data.

“Last year, the cannas and the zinnias were spectacular,” he said. “This year, our basil varieties all looked great and the vincas looked terrific early. They usually peak in late summer, but they are loving the heat. That’s gardening.”

The ornamental horticulture industry has become a $1.2 billion annual economic contributor in East Texas over the past decade, and though not recession proof, hasn’t experienced the downturn in consumer spending other businesses experienced, Pemberton said.


More than 300 attendees visited the trial gardens at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Bruce McMillan Jr. Foundation East Farm for the annual horticultural field day. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Adam Russell)

Dr. Joe Masabni, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service small-acreage horticulturist at Overton, also presented more than 20 varieties of tomatoes and other vegetables at the field day. He said he was impressed by the distances some people traveled to see the trials and to discuss gardening.

“It was a great opportunity to answer questions from home gardeners and show them what we do here at the research and Extension center,” he said. “Many of the attendees came with specific questions about how they can improve their gardening skills. It’s always good to discuss techniques with people who are eager to learn and continuously improve their skills and results.”

Visitors also attended several afternoon presentations by Pemberton and guest speakers who covered a range of topics from top performing ornamental plants to environmentally friendly gardening and rain harvesting with barrels.


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