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Wealth of Education Found in the Display and Trial Garden

Emily Tepe, Research Fellow, Department of Horticultural Science

10-1-09ediblelandscaping_emilytepe.JPGIf you walk through the St. Paul campus Display and Trial Gardens these days you're bound to see a lot of activity. No, I'm not talking about bees on the flowers (although there were a lot of those with the unusual warm weather in September), I'm talking about students. With the start of the fall semester comes a plethora of courses on plant identification, propagation, diseases and insects. The Display and Trial gardens offer a convenient and valuable living laboratory for these courses. In fact, throughout the year (save for a couple of months in the depths of winter) these gardens offer education to many people in the University community and beyond.

Photo 1 (left): Edible landscape portion of the University of Minnesota Display and Trial gardens. Emily Tepe

An Inspiring Outdoor Classroom

The Display and Trial gardens are comprised of various areas between Alderman Hall (home of the Department of Horticultural Science) and the Plant Growth Facilities on Gortner Avenue. Trees, shrubs, and hardscaping create the foundation for the gardens, and break it up into beds, each with their own theme. These themes change from year to year as new varieties are introduced, student projects are realized, and interesting gardening styles bring an opportunity to explore and experiment. The 2009 season brought some inspiring plantings and great educational opportunities.

These educational opportunities often get started while there is still snow on the ground, as students propose projects for the garden and begin designing beds and planting seeds in the greenhouse. Classes ,such as Professor, Neil Anderson's Floriculture Crop Production, research and schedule their assigned crops, working backwards from the planned finish date (mid-May), to assure their annual flowers are at the perfect stage for judging before being planted out in the gardens. Many of the varieties they grow are trials for major seed companies.

When spring arrives, students who have proposed projects for the gardens, begin breaking ground, laying out beds, sowing seeds, and eventually setting out transplants. They are responsible for maintaining their plantings throughout the season, keeping the beds watered, weeded and looking good. It's a great experience for students to take what they've learned in the classroom and put it all into practice. These projects bring the fresh ideas of students to the forefront, allowing them to experiment with new concepts and interesting designs, and even showcase some of their research.

10-1-09MasterGardenerworkshop_emilytepe.JPG

By the time the gardens are in full swing, the St. Paul campus is pretty quiet. Most of the student body is gone for the summer, and the gardens become an inspirational outdoor venue for summer camps, youth enrichment programs, Master Gardener events, and horticulture industry field days. 

Photo 2 (right): Master Gardeners tour the Edible Landscape at the University of Minnesota State Master Gardener Conference. Emily Tepe

On any given summer day you are bound to find a group of high school students cutting flowers for a design and marketing program, or a flurry of youth in matching t-shirts tending a plot of vegetables; kept on task by their nurturing and enthusiastic mentors. Members of the local community often visit the gardens to view the new varieties released by the University, the vast array of annual flowers, and the creative ideas such as this year's Edible Landscape.

A Living Laboratory

10-1-09PlaPathclass_EmilyTepe.JPGOnce classes start in September, University students begin spending a lot of time in the gardens. Many of the students in the introductory horticulture courses have never seen some of these plants before, and the gardens offer a close-up look at the topics they're studying. Tom Michaels, professor in the Department of Horticultural Science (teaching Plant Propagation this semester) said of the Edible Landscape portion of the gardens, "Students pass right by those beds every time they come to lab. They can't help but see examples of the food they buy in the produce department actually growing in front of them. It gives me the opportunity to talk about those foods and encourage them to stop by the beds and find examples of how chard differs from lettuce or dinosaur kale, or similarities and differences between beans and peas". The gardens are indispensable for the plant identification courses as well. Students find examples of hundreds of species, and with hand lenses and forceps, can scrutinize tiny flower parts to determine the plant family to which they belong.

Photo 3 (above): Plant pathology students observing symptoms of apple scab in the Display and Trial garden. Emily Tepe.

Horticulture students aren't the only ones spending time in the gardens. The Display and Trial Gardens provide a wonderful laboratory for plant pathology and entomology students as well. Todd Burnes, scientist in the Department of Plant Pathology, said numerous courses spend time in the gardens identifying and studying various plant diseases. While in the home garden, powdery mildew, leaf spot and white mold would likely prompt immediate action, here we aren't so hasty. The opportunity for students to observe the symptoms of diseases, collect samples and study them in the lab is worth a few ugly plants here and there at the end of the season. Entomology students roam the gardens, sweeping their longs white nets along the edge of the prairie strip, or carefully trapping unsuspecting insects on the zucchini flowers. Once back in the lab, they'll identify and study their specimens.

Photo 4 (below and right) : Powdery mildew on zinnias in the Display and Trial Gardens. Emily Tepe.10-1-09_Med_powderymildewonZinnia_EmilyTepe.JPG

It is truly amazing the wealth of education that can be found in a garden. Here on the St. Paul campus, the Display and Trial gardens offer many people a chance to get up close and personal with flowers, grasses, trees, fruits and vegetables. And whether in class or just wandering through, there are countless opportunities to discover. Every garden offers such opportunities for young and old alike.

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