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WCROC scientists to judge flowers for national nonprofit

WCROC Horticulture Scientist Steve Poppe inspect trees planted in a gravel bed at the West Central Research and Outreach Center. About 100 trees of a dozen different species are being grown.

MORRIS, Minn. - In the United States, gardening is a multi-million dollar industry. In 2009, consumers spent more than $230 million dollars on bedding and garden plants, almost $81 million in Minnesota alone.

This year, a scientist at the West Central Research and Outreach Center has been selected to help one of the nation's top horticultural non-profits judge and recommend the best plants for gardeners to invest in - a responsibility granted to only 67 people across the country.

Steve Poppe, horticultural scientist at the WCROC, will serve as a flower judge for All-American Selections, a non-profit association that tests and promotes new seed varieties for gardens. And the WCROC's Horticultural Display Gardens will serve as one of AAS' flower trialing sites, the only site in Minnesota.

"In seed catalogues, you'll see the AAS designation, and that means [the seed] has superior performance," said Poppe. "It has proven that it can grow anywhere, satisfactorily, in the North American continent. That's huge. That should help the gardeners of today and give them some guidance."

Before new varietals are given the AAS stamp of approval, they are tested at independent sites across North America at trial grounds like the WCROC. Each trial ground has at least one official AAS judge who supervises the trial and evaluates the submitted specimens. Judges in the program are volunteers, and receive no payment for their work.

"Typically, an AAS judge is a horticultural professional and the trial site is part of a seed company trial ground, university or other horticultural institution," said AAS Executive Director Diane Blazek. "All judges and trial sites must be approved by the AAS Board of Directors with the objective of having well-managed sites in different parts of North American that represent various climactic conditions."

Poppe was approached by the president of AAS, Vicky Rupley, about becoming a trialing site last winter. Although Poppe and his co-workers were originally concerned about adding to their workload, they decided to take on the challenge as a way to market the WCROC gardens and develop new relationships within the flower industry.

Poppe went thorough an interview process and was approved as a provisional flower judge in June. After one successful year, Poppe will officially join the ranks of flower judges.

The WCROC already does flower trialing and research about annual plants for different private companies. The research flowers are displayed around the garden in an "aesthetically pleasing manner ... so people can enjoy them and see how they might use them in their own garden," said Poppe.

The AAS flower trials, however, will be planted in rows in a different location in the garden and be monitored using different criteria. When the seeds arrive, their identity is kept secret through the trialing process. They'll be planted near other similar varieties that are already on the market that they will be compared against. Judges are instructed to evaluate entries for qualities like novel flower forms, color, fragrance, length of flowering season and more.

Poppe said being a part of the flower trialing program has already brought him connections from around the flower industry. At a judges' summit in August, Poppe said he was able to meet industry professionals he had only worked with over the phone or via e-mail and see how other companies set up their flower trials.

"It was a great experience," said Poppe. "That was one real neat highlight of being selected as a judge."

Seeds for the first year of AAS trials have already arrived at the WCROC. Poppe said he and his co-worker, junior scientist Tom Holm, will start the seeds in late February and transplant the seedlings into the garden around the end of May, weather permitting.

Although the program will be more work for WCROC staff, Poppe said it is an opportunity to expand on the work his team already does.

"This will just enhance what we're already doing," said Poppe. "Our annual flower trials are our major thrust. That's where most of our time is spent."