Gardening has always been popular in the United States, but the last few years have brought millions of new people to gardening. According to the National Gardening Association in 2020, 18 million new gardeners joined the hobby. As we celebrate National Garden Month, it is important to recognize how gardeners benefit from programs funded by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Researchers and Extension professionals across the country are conducting trials evaluating varieties of vegetables, flowers and even herbs for quality traits as well as for disease and insect issues.
Publicly funded variety trials reduce the expense, time and effort gardeners and farmers must put in to select the best cultivars for their gardens or operations.
For example, while some varieties are described as cold tolerant, they are rarely tested in growing seasons as extreme as the conditions in Alaska. That means Alaskan growers struggle with identifying viable crop varieties.
The University of Alaska experiment stations have conducted vegetable variety trials for many years. Sixty-six varieties of vegetables were planted in 2020, including corn, carrots, beets, beans, fennel, winter squash and spinach. The trials usually continue over several years because of weather variability. Each cultivar was evaluated for plant vigor, susceptibility to bolt, uniformity, pest resistance and disease resistance.
Trial results are disseminated widely, including via the Alaska Master Gardener Program, to help growers make informed choices.
Variety Trials Yield Valuable Results
American Samoa imports most of its food, making fresh produce dependent on sometimes irregular ocean shipping. Many of American Samoa's population battle illnesses such as obesity and diabetes. Researchers at American Samoa Community College are working to identify specific vegetables and varieties that will grow easily in American Samoa's challenging conditions and are educating local growers on best choices for their gardens. Their goal is to improve food security, community health and farmers' incomes.
Organic growers require vegetable cultivars that are well adapted to organic production systems and offer good production. The problem is that most cultivars have not been bred under organic conditions and may not be optimally adapted to use in organic production systems. A collaboration of researchers from Colorado State University, Cornell University, Oregon State University and the University of Wisconsin are using variety trials to identify existing cultivars that are adapted to organic production and have the taste, flavor and quality traits that consumers expect from organic produce. Additionally, they are implementing breeding programs for a selected set of crops that are lacking suitable cultivars.
Through variety trials, University of New Hampshire scientists evaluated multiple varieties of several high-value specialty crops in terms of yield, quality and disease susceptibility. Additionally, they compared different production strategies (planting and harvest dates, winter protection strategies and pruning systems) that can help growers maximize productivity for a given crop and situation. Their research demonstrated that planting winter spinach in high tunnels results in higher yields throughout the winter and spring harvest season, allowing growers to more accurately weigh the costs and benefits of removing summer crops to plant winter crops earlier.
University of Minnesota Master Gardeners from across the state have devoted time and garden space to testing popular flower and vegetable varieties. Each year, they conduct trials on six different classes of vegetables, two of flowers and, when possible, one herb, evaluating for flavor, disease and insect tolerance and productivity.
University of Delaware Extension professionals conduct variety trials on vegetables and fruits including corn, lima beans and seedless watermelons. Their reports include detailed information about yield, time to maturity and quality traits for the varieties evaluated. High performing varieties are added to the recommended variety lists in the Mid-Atlantic Commercial Vegetable Production Recommendations.