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UGA Trial Gardens goes sustainable

By April Sorrow
University of Georgia

Nestled between buildings -- and currently hidden behind a construction zone -- a garden grows. The University of Georgia Trial Gardens is where plants from all over the world are tested. Now grown in a sustainable way, the garden has little impact on the environment but a huge one on the people who visit it.

“Everybody looks at this garden to demonstrate new ways to do things,” said Camille Evans, a UGA student and the garden’s sustainability co-director. “By taking steps toward sustainability, hopefully we can help them take steps in the right direction at their home and business. If they can see that it works here, they can see it will work other places, too.”

Allan Armitage, a horticulture professor with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, started the garden in 1982. It has grown into a place where plant breeders from around the world want to test their plants’ ability to grow in heat and humidity. Three years ago, a decision was made to make the gardens sustainable.

The garden is reducing its environmental impact through minimizing water use, maximizing soil nutrients, reducing the use of plastics and letting nature work.

“We always were pretty careful, which made it easier for us,” Armitage said. “We used to use a lot of plastic; we use hardly any now. We used to use inorganic fertilizers; everything is organic now. Although we never used sprays indiscriminately, we have minimized to almost nothing today. But we do spray if we have an infestation of a certain insect that we can’t get rid of organically. We do have to apply chemicals. We simply do everything better, but we are not perfect.”

Installing a drip irrigation system reduced water use at the garden 80 percent. Winter cover crops increase soil minerals. Plastic pots have been replaced with biodegradable paper cylinders full of soil.

Utilizing sustainable products, like Ellepots, the garden has increased efficiency. The “pick up and plant” technique used with the paper pots cuts planting time. And the pot’s design helps the plant grow better and faster.

The garden looks to start trends in the horticulture industry, Evans said.

“Everyone has a different definition of sustainability,” Evans said. “We take steps to be innovative and environmentally conscience in what we do. We may be doing some things that some people may not consider sustainable. So, you do what you can and maybe next year you do it better. If everyone did that, we’d all be in a better position.”

The garden receives most of its sustainable inputs from Ball Horticulture Company free of charge. Leaders in the industry, Ball provides the trial garden with Ellepots and Daniels fertilizers.

Armitage wanted to be the first sustainable trial garden in the U.S., said Janet Curry, Ball sales representative. And she wanted to help him.

“We wanted to reach the students who will be in our industry. If we can help them learn how to be sustainable, it will be to everyone’s benefit,” Curry said.

As a teaching facility, the garden exposes students to various annual and perennial species and allows them to study the different growth habits, tolerances and uses.

“This is a true research laboratory. We look at unknown plant material, evaluate them, generate data and dispense it to those who are interested,” Armitage said. “The other great thing about this garden is its use as a classroom. The students are exposed to the plants right next door. I don’t know any other university that has a facility as diverse as this that is so easy for the students to walk to. Also, for the general public and people on campus it is a beautiful place to visit, eat their lunch and relax. After all, where is it written that research cannot be beautiful?”

To view the results of the trials, visit ugatrial.hort.uga.edu/.

(April Sorrow is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(April R. Sorrow is a science writer with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.)

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