When the students who made the mass exodus out of Fort Collins at the end of spring semester arrive back at CSU over summer, there are three constants that always indicate the sunny season is here: the green grass, the full trees and the Annual Flower Trial Garden that sits across College Avenue, just in front of the University Center for the Arts.
CSU Professor of Landscape Horticulture and Director of the Plant Environmental Research Center Jim Klett manages the garden with the help of volunteers and four CSU students who work full time in the summer to help with maintenance.
The Garden is almost impossible to miss since it moved to its current location on Remington Street in 2001, which is why Klett said it has “become one of the top tourist spots in Fort Collins” attracting “between 300 to 400 guests on a busy weekend.”
The original location for the garden, which was planted nearly four decades ago, was at PERC, located at 630 West Lake St. on the southwest corner of the CSU main campus.
“CSU has been doing flower evaluations for over 35 years,” Klett said.
In 2001, Klett and CSU were interested in moving the gardens away from the PERC building and into a bigger area. CSU swapped the land with the City of Fort Collins, which was also looking for a place for community gardens, and the trial gardens were moved to the current 2.8-acre plot of land, which was formerly a city park.
The land has seen more developments every year.
In 2001, a tunnel was built underneath College Avenue for safety and convenience purposes to travel from the PERC building to the new location.
Additional developments over the years were made by planting beds in the shape of a horseshoe and building a shade structure for flowers that are known to require less sunlight, among other projects.
Even the gazebo on the property, which was formerly a popular smoking hangout for high school students at the former Fort Collins High School before it became the UCA, was repaired and made into the elegant structure that it is today.
“This used to be a horrible- looking gazebo,” Klett joked.
Benches were added, multiple areas of the garden were changed and perennial trials have been added across the street on the lawn of the UCA.
“What we have here now is close to 1,200 different varieties of bedding plants, at least 30 to 40 percent of which are new plants,” Klett said.
“The majority of (the plants) are cutting varieties. . Probably about 850 to 900 are from stem cuttings,” he added.
While the flowers and multitude of colors are visually stunning, the garden actually serves a much greater purpose for the gardening industry, providing a “good testing ground to see how annuals and perennials will perform in the unique growing conditions in the Rocky Mountain Region,” Klett said.
Klett said it is hard to find a more unique growing environment, due to Colorado’s high elevation, high light intensity and low humidity.
That’s why this year about 22 seed companies paid anywhere from $45 to $80 for an entry fee to have their plant tested in Colorado’s climate, Klett said, which pays for much of the operational costs of the garden.
The gardeners usually plant about two rows of 12 seeds and take data on information such as the number of flowers, how fast they spread and overall performance in Colorado.
If a plant performs particularly well, awards such as the All-American Selection and the “Best Of” are given, which can be used by the seed company as a method of advertisement and promotion, Klett said, and even the official introduction into the Colorado region as home-gardeners begin to buy the seed.
Garden maintenance is performed primarily by four student employees, who in the summer work Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
“It’s a lot of work,” Travis Byers, a junior horticulture major who works at the trial garden, said. “Some days you literally pull weeds for the entire day.”
Employment at the garden is very competitive, according to Byers, who beat out more than 70 applicants to get his position.
Kara Crist, junior landscape horticulture major and garden employee, said the best part about the job is being able to see all the different varieties of plants from around the world.
“I get to see what does well here,” Crist said. “I was even able to get some flowers for my mom because I saw how they did here.”
All of the plants are officially evaluated in the first week of August, and then evaluated again in the early part of September. The results are published annually in a book report that allows the seed companies and home-gardeners to see how the new plants faired in the Rocky Mountain Region.
The “outreach and marketing possibilities” for the seed companies that participate are very important to the gardening industry, Klett said.
“The Trial Gardens are really a highlight of the university,” Klett added. “They are very much a cultural area for the university.”
Staff writer Bryan Shiele can be reached at email@example.com.