EAST TEXAS — Approximately 150 East Texans showed up for the 1998 Overton Center Horticultural Field Day, held June 18 at the Texas A&M University Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Overton in Rusk County.
Some attended in their professional capacity, being involved with the commercial bedding plant industry. Others, for whom gardening is a serious avocation, came to learn and enjoy themselves.
Most all agreed the Overton Center horticultural tour is unique in East Texas.
John Marples, Longview, attended the tour as both a professional and a dilettante. Marples works at Lowes garden department, and is a master gardener. He spent a good part of the tour taking detailed notes on the variety trials for new selections of ornamental plants such as impatiens, begonias, petunias, salvia, and novelty species such as ornamental sweet potatoes, cold hardy hibiscus and old-fashioned petunias.
“Pretty impressive,” said Marples, who described himself as a gardening enthusiast.
Dee Bishop, who works for Thompson Hills Nursery in Tyler, also attended in both a professional and the “enthusiast” capacity. As a plant specialist for Thompson Hills, Bishop is always on the lookout for new bedding plants that are adapted to East Texas conditions.
“Our customers are always looking for something different. Here we can see how well unusual species perform,” Bishop said.
Bishop and other professionals could observe more than 200 species of bedding plants on the tours, and see which ones they can safely recommend to their customers and fellow gardening enthusiasts. All agreed that the trials are a vital service to the industry, yet until theearly 1990s, they had few ways to check out performance of new varieties other than looking at trials on the West Coast or Upper Midwest.
“Growing conditions vary greatly from state to state,” said Dr. Brent Pemberton, horticultural researcher with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station and supervisor for the trials. “As big as the industry is, there are few places from Georgia to California that perform outdoor trials other than Overton. Except for our trials here at the Center, there are no greenhouse trials closer than Chicago.”
“Anything that can take East Texas heat at its worse and still look beautiful is something we can sell,” said Bishop, who also is a member of Smith County Master Gardeners.
The Texas Agricultural Extension Service made a commitment to a Texas Master Gardener program in 1987 with the hiring of a statewide coordinator. Since the early 1990s, the program exploded, fueled by the program’s success and visibility.
Trained by professional extension horticulturists, master gardeners assist local citizens in home horticulture and environmental issues such as landscape waste reduction and utilization. Master gardeners also work with school children, adjudicated juvenile offenders and school teachers. Master Gardener horticultural advice is also available on radio and newspapers, through speaking engagements and educational exhibits at malls and fairs.
As of January 1998, there were 54 county Master Gardener programs with over 4,000 certified Master Gardeners statewide. In 1997, they contributed more than 182,000 hours of volunteer service.
Sue Adee, another Smith County Master Gardener, noted that her club members became actively involved with the trials in March. For the Master Gardeners it was an educational event, allowing them to expand their expertise. It didn’t come without a personal cost, however. More than a dozen Smith County Master Gardeners collectively put in hundreds of hours at the center in preparation for the trials.
Other field tour topics will include new variety trials of seedless and seeded watermelons and cantaloupes, results of fungicide testing for black spot control on roses and the use of poultry litter as a substitute for commercial fertilizer. For commercial watermelon grow ers, the tour’s hot spot was the test results of more than 30 seedless varieties and 25 hybrid seeded varieties. Grown on raised beds with plastic mulch and using drip irrigation, some of the new seedless varieties have yielded in excess of 50,000 pounds per acre. Grown under similar conditions, many of the seeded varieties have yielded more than 70,000 pounds per acre.
The event was sponsored by the Texas Agricultural Extension Service and the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station. Besides fine-tuning agricultural science for Ea st Texas conditions, the Overton Center also gives regional direction and support to Extension Service faculty in 22 counties.