TAMU: The Cutting Edge Collegiate Collection

By Lana Robinson

Freelance Writer

hat began as an outgrowth of research and educational programs at Texas A&M University in College Station has blossomed into an impressive series of plantings that inspire visitors and illuminate those with an interest in gardening and landscaping. Tucked away on Hensel Drive, in an area occupied by the university’s Department of Horticulture Sciences lab, the TAMU Horticultural Gardens are in bloom year round and open to the public daily.

“It’s not a landscape as much as a collection of plants,” says Dr. Don Wilkerson, TAMU research horticulturist who had a hand in developing the gardens. “It’s not broken out into theme gardens as much as habitats. A lot of arboretums are more theme oriented. Here, it is more about studying plants. Hopefully, they are arranged in an aesthetically appealing way. They’re grouped according to climate, shade, full sun, and certainly water requirements. Some of those by nature create kind of a theme garden. It’s a diverse collection of plants used in some different ways, consistent with teaching, research and outreach efforts.”

Paths of chipped wood lead the way through the 15-acre garden site, which has sprouted a little at a time and serves primarily as an outdoor classroom.

“Dr. Mike Arnold was having to take classes all over campus for plant identification,” recalls Priscilla Files, Extension horticulturist and assistant to Wilkerson. “Then he started teaching landscaping maintenance and construction. They already had a greenhouse or two, which operated under the auspices of the horticultural lab on Hensel Drive. Landscape students built beds and then filled them with plants for landscape ID, and it grew from there. Dr. Wilkerson got involved and it started expanding, and people began to take notice. We have a xeric garden, a water garden, a West Texas garden, and a shade garden. Most of the gardens are less than five years old, which is relatively young. In England, they call a 30-year-old garden a baby…”

Visitors to the gardens find some 1,800 plant species, ranging from wetland and bog to desert southwest.

“We have some real nice Louisiana irises that are spectacular in spring in our water garden area,” notes Wilkerson. “We have a very nice collection of found roses and heritage roses and some unique plants, like the Mexican scar plant, and a huge collection of ornamental grasses. We’re kind of excited about the grasses. Also, Brazos County is the designated crape myrtle county for the state of Texas. We have a nice collection of crape myrtles. That’s kind of our shtick.”

Rosemary, sage, blue plumbago, morning glory, coral vine, firebush, red yucca, and lantana also abound. To the delight of birdwatchers, a wide range of bird species are drawn to the gardens. Some, including a pair of nesting red-tailed hawks, have taken up permanent residence. Others just stop by during their migratory pilgrimage.

“We have a lot of fall annuals and perennials as well,” says Wilkerson.image

The gardens are user friendly. The walking path is about one-eighth mile long with seating available at 100-foot intervals. Restrooms are located adjacent to the Field Lab. Drinking water is available throughout the garden and soft drinks may be purchased at the Patio Area (seasonal). Loaner umbrellas and insect repellant are also available at the Howdy Haus. Plant labels are provided to assist in identifying the many specimens in our collection.

Wilkerson, who became a member of the graduate faculty at Texas A&M University in October 1989, focuses on foliage, flowering and bedding plant research with an emphasis on nutrition, culture, production and applied technology. Priscilla Files, an Extension horticulturist, is Wilkerson’s assistant. Drs. Mike Arnold and Garry McDonald also utilize the gardens for classes. McDonald is a research horticulturist with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station. Arnold teaches courses in Landscape Contracting, as well as Maintenance and Construction.

In addition to his staff and A&M students, Wilkerson relies on a loyal crew of volunteers to provide extra help in the gardens and greenhouses. Volunteers range in experience from Master Gardeners to complete novices.

“We have about 50 community volunteers who are making a huge contribution here,” he says.

The Horticultural Gardens and Field Laboratory are funded by research grants. Different levels of membership for the Friends of the Garden program, created to generate additional funds, are available for $20, $50, $100 or $500 a year.

“Friends of the Garden members receive numerous benefits,” notes Wilkerson, “but membership also helps support teaching, research and education activities at the TAMU Horticultural Gardens. We’ve seen a significant increase in Friends of the Garden members. They’ve played an important role.”

Proceeds from plant sales two times a year also benefit the gardens.

In October 1999, friends and family of Lou Cashion established a memorial fund of $25,000 to be used for the maintenance of the Horticultural Gardens at Texas A&M University. Cashion’s family also donated her flower garden, which the Extension Service moved to Hensel Drive.

“The addition of the Cashion Garden and establishment of the Foundation really jump started things. That has carried the ball in terms of providing resources, especially with recent budget cuts. But we’ve been fortunate in that Priscilla’s salary is covered through Extension, but from day one, we’ve been responsible for generating our own operating budget. The garden is dependent on gifts and contributions.

Clientele includes nursery owners and plant breeders looking for plants to grow for their customers and horticulture students getting hands-on experience to avid gardeners looking for landscape ideas and visitors.

“We have a variety of educational outreach activities for students and horticultural professionals – landscapers, greenhouse and nursery producers. We work closely with the statewide Master Gardener program and the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association’s Master Certification program,” he says.

To encourage more community use of the garden, Wilkerson and fellow horticulturists hosted monthly spring gardening programs this spring. In February, Dr. George Ray McEachern, Texas Cooperative Extension horticulturist, gave tips on planting and raising grape vines, and also discussed Texas fruits and nuts. Other lectures included “Antique Roses for the Brazos Valley” in March and “New Plant Introductions” in April. Two more lectures remain: “Gardening at the Mercer Arboretum,” by ginger plant expert Linda Gay, scheduled for May 21; and “Floral Design Workshop,” to be conducted by Dr. Jayne Zajicek of Texas A&M on June 18. (The cost for each workshop is $5 for Friends of the Garden members and $10 for non-members.)

imageTAMU currently maintains a 20,000 square foot container nursery and a 6,000 square foot greenhouse for the purpose of studying new plants, production systems, and developing technologies.

“We’re constantly looking and trying to identify plants that offer drought tolerance and insect and disease tolerance and resistance,” says Wilkerson.

Consistent with that goal, the TAMU Horticultural Gardens are one of seven test sites for Texas SuperstarsTM (http://aggiehorticulture.tamu.edu/cemap/tamuhort.html). Dr. Arnold is heavily involved in that research, which operates under the Coordinated Education and Marketing Assistance Program (CEMAP). Every effort is made to ensure that highlighted plants, bearing the Texas SuperStarsTM designation, will perform well for Texas consumers. Wherever appropriate, limitations to highlighted plants are mentioned during marketing campaigns. Additionally, cultural information is provided to give the consumer guidance regarding proper plant care. Texas SuperStarsTM need minimal inputs of water and pesticides, greatly reducing their impact on the environment.

“Steve George up in Dallas is the program coordinator,” Wilkerson notes. “Some of the plants that have been released had their origin here in the garden. It’s a test and evaluation site. Those plants that are going through that process have to be evaluated for awhile. We also try a lot of plants that are in the pipeline, auditioning as Superstars, in the trial area.”

Another important factor considered when selecting plants for educational and marketing campaigns is whether sufficient numbers of plants can be produced to meet the increased consumer demand generated by CEMAP efforts. And that’s an important consideration, says Wilkerson, with explosive growth in the nursery/greenhouse industry. He attributes the boom to the change in the state’s demographics.

“Texas was once one of the largest rural states. Now, it’s among the largest urban states, with 80 percent of the population concentrated in five counties. We have an urban building boom, and our industry is largely tied to new construction. Also, a lot of people are looking for, or want to be involved, in gardening. They want their yard to look nice, but they don’t have the time to do everything that needs to be done. That’s why the landscape maintenance industry is going crazy. People are hiring someone to do routine maintenance. They don’t have time to mow and edge and blow the leaves, so they hire professionals to do the routine stuff and they do the gardening themselves,” he suggests.

Wilkerson works closely with growers throughout the state in cultural and management problems. Population growth and demand on resources present a wide range of challenges. Wilkerson concentrates on solutions that protect surface and groundwater protection, including waste-water reuse, irrigation management for conservation, solid waste management and recycling of agricultural plastics.

“The long-term availability of water, the use of pesticides and their fate in the environment are all issues A&M specialists are addressing,” Wilkerson reports.

Commercial and residential landscape irrigation is the single largest water use category for most major municipalities. The broad use of native plants and improved irrigation techniques assist individuals and the community, reduce water consumption and protect the environment. These and other demonstrations on landscape design and management conducted at TAMU’s Horticultural Gardens provide lifelong learning opportunities for home gardeners and horticultural professionals alike.

For more information on the programs or membership, call (979) 845-3658. You can also learn more and take a virtual tour of the gardens online at http://hortgardens.tamu.edu

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