University City

Area gardens help test plants for Organic Gardening Magazine

Trial winning flowers putting on a show at UNC Charlotte’s Student Community Garden: Tidal Wave Red Velour in foreground and Trilogy Red petunias and Pink Jolt dianthus are in the middle.
Trial winning flowers putting on a show at UNC Charlotte’s Student Community Garden: Tidal Wave Red Velour in foreground and Trilogy Red petunias and Pink Jolt dianthus are in the middle.

Organic Gardening Magazine’s 2015 test garden in Charlotte boasted some tasty vegetables this year, but summer flowers stole the show.

“It was the petunias, especially,” says Paula Gross of UNC Charlotte’s Botanical Gardens. “They were so floriferous and attracted so much attention that when it was time to turn the bed for fall greens planting, students simply would not pull the flowers up. The chard got planted a month late. But it was a fair trade for the many months of blooms brightening up the summer vegetable garden.”

In the horticulture world, a trial simply means growing plants under real-world conditions. Charlotte has hosted trial gardens for Organic Gardening Magazine for longer than a decade.

Organic Gardening has traditionally focused on finding vegetables and flowers that work well for organic gardeners, who avoid toxic pesticides and industrial fertilizers. Organic Gardening’s network of a dozen experienced test gardeners across North American starts everything from seed, growing their own transplants if necessary. Known for launching the organic revolution in the 1950s and 60s, Organic Gardening became online only in 2015, replaced by a new title, Organic Life, on the magazine stand.

UNC Charlotte’ new Student Community Garden, Reedy Creek Park Community Garden, on Grier Road near Rocky River Road, and a home front yard near campus hosted Organic Gardening’s trial plots this year in Charlotte. On the seed list were lots of interesting edibles, from basil and tomatoes to broccoli and purple carrots, in addition to those spectacular flowers.

Two different kinds of petunia wowed Gross and her students by blooming from mid-July through October.

Tidal Wave Red Velour lived up to its name, creating a tsunami of color splashing out of its planter box. Trilogy Red, a more old-fashioned petunia, also did very well, with rich red color making up for slightly less vigor.

They shared a planter with another winner, a Dianthus (carnation relative) named Pink Jolt. With its intensely colored flowers held high, Pink Jolt kicked in in cooler weather to bring on even more color. In the front yard, Pink Jolt is still blooming even now in mid-December.

Other test gardeners agreed. Kathy Shaw in Wisconsin called both petunias “knock outs” in her garden. Jaclyn Smith, who gardens in Minnesota, added: “Pink Jolt did very well in our hard-packed clay, and the color was bright and cheerful.”

The top OG food crops in Charlotte for 2015 were two squashes, both able to handle pests and diseases naturally. Butterscotch, a small version of butternut squash jazzed up with narrow green racing stripes, was outstanding, churning out dozens of tasty two-serving-sized squash from healthy vines.

Discus Bush Buttercup was also a standout. Though less prolific, the vines were small enough even for home planter boxes, and the squash, flat and colored like an old-fashioned red pumpkin, were delicious. In fact, we made them into pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving.

Two 2015 test broccolis, Super Green and Artwork, also did very well. With the impending loss of a popular home garden broccoli variety, Packman, people are looking for alternatives (the loss has to do with business factors, not the quality of the plant.)

“Super Green outperformed Packman, Premium Crop, and Sun King, and produced for five months,” Smith reported.

Plant breeders bred Artwork, a 2015 All-America Selection, to produce lots and lots of side shoots after a gardener harvests the plant’s medium-small central broccoli head. So far, this has worked well in the Reedy Creek Park garden, where there is already a new crop of flowerettes a week after plants provided broccoli casserole for Thanksgiving.

Not everything in the trials went well. Organic seed breeders, working together, created Who Gets Kissed sweet corn with wonderful flavor and disease resistance. Since it is not a hybrid, the seed should be OK for saving to grow the following year.

At the Reedy Creek garden test, Who Gets Kissed seemed more a work in progress, with a lot of variability in plant size and timing of ears ripening. The inconsistency confused gardeners, but not the raccoons. They harvested a lot more that I did. Test gardener Linda Crago in Canada reported exactly the same problem.

Crago praised Roxanne, a new radish variety. Roxanne also did extremely well in Charlotte, growing quickly to lovely round classic radishes, red outside and snow white inside. It makes an ideal quick crop (25 days) for school gardens, where getting quick results is part of the challenge.

Perhaps the oddest crop on this year’s list was dandelion. Clio, a European variety, has delectably bitter leaves, a key ingredient in French salad bowls. The plant holds its leaves upright, not like sprawling lawn dandelions, and resists bolting. It still looks pretty weedy, but adds an intriguing flavor note for adventuresome cooks.

The OG trials come with a hidden message: Gardeners do not need to buy everything as transplants from garden centers or nurseries. Instead, they can succeed beautifully by sowing seed, just as our grandparents did. Seed packets offer a much wider variety of choices, specially of good tasting heirlooms and old fashioned varieties. Growing flowers is a tiny bit trickier than vegetables, perhaps, but even flowers are do-able, fun, and give a great sense of achievement.

Don Boekelheide is a freelance writer,

Learn more:

The full report on all the test crops will be available early next year on the Organic Life website,