Garden open house features flowers, edibles and advice

Jan Shepel
A visitor strolls through garden beds framed by a crop of sunflowers during an open house August 17 at the UW’s West Madison Agricultural Research Station.

MADISON – A picture-perfect August day gave about 100 visitors to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s West Madison Agricultural Research Station the chance to taste new varieties of tomatoes and peppers, gaze at extensive flower beds and pick their favorite flowers as well as talk to gardening and plant experts.

The research station on Mineral Point Road was open to the general public on Saturday, Aug. 17. Visitors toured the station’s vineyard, vegetable beds and extensive plantings of flowers, and did tasting evaluations of fruits and vegetables.

One of the first tents that greeted visitors showcased tomatoes and peppers. Braver visitors bit into whole hot peppers to compare their flavors. Others tried several kinds of tomatoes. “Vegetable breeding programs are looking for varieties that combine great traits for the table with productivity for growers,” explained Jenyne Loarca, a graduate student in plant breeding.

On display (and available for tasting) were commonly grown varieties alongside a newer variety that was created with the well-known tomato as a parent. Growers of tomatoes will recognize the “Big Beef” variety. Breeders used it to come up with the new “Garden Gem” variety, which was at the station to be tasted. Another variety “Japanese Black” was originally grown in Siberia and matures early. It is being used as a parent for new varieties.

Brian Emerson, a research specialist at the UW-Madison, shared tomato samples with visitors August 17 at trial gardens operated by the University. Projects are aimed at selecting tomatoes with the best eating characteristics and the greatest productivity for growers.

Brian Emerson, a research specialist at the UW-Madison, explained that some of the tomatoes presented for sampling were not newly bred varieties, but were selections. There is enough genetic diversity among seedlings of any given plant that sometimes all that needs to be done is grow them all out and select those that do the best.

Some of the tomatoes he offered visitors to taste are not commercially available and are still part of the station’s selection trials. He explained that the tomatoes look perfect because they are grown in hoop houses. “We grow 60 to 70 varieties to figure out what grows well and then what tastes good,” Emerson said.

Plant pathology expert Brian Hudelson offered advice for visitors on plant diseases. Because of the wet growing season, “it’s been a good year for me. Wet equals lots of disease, equals lots of samples in my lab. I have a warped, twisted view of the world,” he told Wisconsin State Farmer.

He runs the Plant Disease Diagnostics Clinic (PDDC) and has earned the nickname “Dr. Death” with his appearances at seminars, on Wisconsin Public Radio and at up to 125 outreach sessions each year for home gardeners, Master Gardeners, landscape professionals, crop consultants and commercial growers. His lab handles samples for every kind of plant except turf.

Hudelson said that since hemp is a new crop being grown in the state he has seen hemp samples with downy mildew and this year he has already seen corn samples with tar spot. Woody samples have included oak wilt and Dutch elm disease. Wet seasons last year and this year have brought an increase in samples to the lab of more than 10 percent compared to a drier year.

Late blight already here

Late blight has already been pinpointed in the state on potatoes and tomatoes. While those diseases are critically important to commercial growers, Hudelson said they also want to catch them in homeowners’ gardens. “It has been busy all season. June and July were insane. August has been really insane,” he said. His lab continues to test samples through October and into the winter.

One of the tests they do is soil sampling for canning companies that process peas. For those processors to know if they should contract to grow peas on a given field some soil is collected and peas are grown in the greenhouse to determine if they can sustain a healthy pea crop. “That test was developed here at the UW,” he said. “If the soil can grow peas, it is determined to be free of pea root rot, or aphanomyces.”

The test allows canning companies and vegetable growers to manage their rotations. If the land is not used to grow peas for a number of years, it could once again sustain a commercial pea crop.

About 100 visitors attended an open house at the UW-Madison’s West Madison Agricultural Research Station to look at hundreds of varieties of geraniums, perennial plants and dahlias. The plots also include a grape vineyard and extensive vegetable beds.

A big part of his job is outreach to the general public to help answer questions. He talked with visitors at the West Madison station and had just returned from a similar evening session at the University Research Station in Spooner.

(For more on the Plant Disease Diagnostics Clinic see the website or contact Hudelson at 608-262-2863.)

Judy Campbell, a Master Gardener from Dodgeville meandered around the colorful beds that showcase 235 varieties of geraniums and 100 varieties of dahlias this year. She had tried last year to bring her whole garden club to this open house, but it turned out to be a tornado warning.

The weather was much nicer this year, she noted. Campbell, who has been a Master Gardener for 10 years, enjoyed tasting the tomatoes and was specifically interested in plants that attract pollinators this time of year. “I keep bees and I am looking for ideas on ways to provide them what they need in August and September,” she said.

Wheat plus forage

At one of the tents in the display gardens, a trio of researchers were handing out bread and butter and talking about a deep-rooted perennial wheatgrass with the trade name “Kernza.” The plant is now a commercial selection of a cool-season intermediate wheatgrass that is widely grown in western states as a forage crop.

Three researchers, left to right, Korede Olugbenle, Joel Cryer and Stephania Cartoni explained the virtues of a deep-rooted perennial intermediate wheatgrass variety that is being trialed at various agricultural research stations in Wisconsin for its value in forage and grain production. Their to-scale poster shows the depth of roots the plant sends down.

In Wisconsin, research is ongoing at various locations around the state to take cuttings of the plant as a forage and then also harvest the grain. The bread being served at the open house by graduate students Stephania Cartoni and Korede Olugbenle and their research assistant Joel Cryer was made by Madison Sourdough using Kernza wheat. Beer has also been made from the wheat – the brew called “Deep Roots” from Driftless Brewery was so-named to honor the deep root system that is sent down by the plant.

Cartoni explained that the root system of the plant rivals that of prairie vegetation and as such it holds the soil in place, reduces leaching, improves water quality and accumulates carbon in the soil. The three researchers posed with a poster showing the depth of the roots on the intermediate wheatgrass.

With their deep rooted and varied plants, prairie ecosystems are responsible for building much of the soil now cultivated by farmers in the Midwest and Great Plains. Those looking into the wheatgrass as a forage and grain crop are hoping it can be used by farmers to build soils and sequester carbon.

One of the favorite plants for those who visited the UW-Madison’s garden plots was an echinacea in the Darwin Perennial beds and is called Sombrero ‘Tres Amigos’. Visitors were asked to use red stakes to mark their favorite plants and there were many next to this plant.

The West Madison Agricultural Research Station has 525 tillable acres, on which UW-Madison researchers grow, study and breed a wide variety of agronomic, vegetable, and fruit crops. The station’s display gardens – which are at the heart of the open house -- feature new varieties of fruits, vegetables, and ornamental plants so visitors can decide which they may want to grow.