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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

What is a Proven Winner®?

The annuals I learned to plant as a young girl came in familiar plastic four or six packs, and each year the selection was pretty much the same. Today, more and more of the plants we purchase for our gardens are "branded". But what's in a name? Often these branded plants carry with them a higher price tag. Is paying a premium price for an annual plant that will only last one growing season worth it?

I'll admit I've been slow to jump on the branded plant bandwagon. Old habits die hard, and for a long time I would rather get as many plants as I could for every dollar I spent in plants, especially annuals. The first branded plant I tried was the Wave™ petunia. I was convinced that very first year when I observed that each Wave™ petunia filled as much space as three or four of the "old reliable" petunias I was used to planting. And the Wave™ petunias easily outbloomed any other petunia I had planted up to that point.

Fast forward a few years and as my interest in gardening continued to develop, I began to look for new and different plants, not just for perennial plants, but for annuals as well. Often the plants I ended up purchasing were tagged as "Proven Winners®". But does that really mean anything? Or is it just a marketing gimmick?

Several years ago I had an opportunity to attend a seminar presented by staff from the Proven Winners® company about just what the Proven Winners® tag means—and as it turns out, it is way more than clever marketing.

The Proven Winners® company was founded in 1992 as a marketing co-op between three leading U.S. plant propagators: Euro American in Bonsall, CA; Four Star Greenhouse in Carleton, MI; and Pleasant View Gardens in Loudon, NH. Their goal was to market superior, unique plants-- both annuals and perennials-- to greenhouses nationwide.

The process of declaring a plant a "Proven Winner®" is a very labor and time intensive process. It takes two to three years to select and test a new Proven Winner®.

Individual plant breeders present their best selections to Proven Winners® hoping to win their attention. Thousands of contenders are included in the first round of testing. In the example presented at the seminar I attended, the first round of selecting a new petunia had 7,700 entries. Out of that group, a single petunia was chosen and later released as a Proven Winner®.

Plants are tested in trial gardens located in multiple locations across the U.S. and Canada, as well as Europe, South Africa and Japan. Testing in multiple locations helps to highlight plants that perform well over a wide range of environmental conditions.

Part of the trialing process includes evaluating whether a plant can be produced in mass quantities and whether it ships well. When a Proven Winner® plant is marketed, thousands upon thousands of that single type of plant must be produced for sale. Proven Winners® are propagated asexually, typically through cuttings or tissue culture, so they must be able to tolerate these methods and produce the same plant without variation.

Interestingly, part of what makes Proven Winners® such strong performers in the garden is that plants are selected specifically because they do not set seed at all, or do not set viable seed. The plants channel their energy into producing blooms rather than seeds.

The facilities that produce Proven Winners® plants are remarkable. The production facility in Costa Rica produces 23 million cuttings per year. Five percent of these cuttings are sampled and tested extensively for the presence of plant viruses that could reduce their garden performance. The budget for this testing alone is about $3 million dollars per year. This testing helps ensure a consistent superior product.

My conclusion after listening to the seminar from Proven Winners®? Their plants certainly do cost a little more than the "old reliables", but the extensive trialing process and careful production practices does seem to work in their favor. I can honestly say that many of my newer favorites are Proven Winners®, such as Diamond Frost® Euphorbia, Supertunia® Petunias, Superbells® Calibrachoa and Snow Princess® Lobularia (common name Sweet Alyssum).

Join us on Saturday, February 14th for a chance to learn more about the 2015 Proven Winners offerings in one of thirteen different gardening classes offered at Gardening Insights Day, the annual educational day hosted by the University of Illinois Extension Macon County Master Gardener Program. The day also includes keynote speaker, Kerry Ann Mendez, author of "The Right Size Flower Garden: Exceptional Plants and Design Solutions for Aging and Time-Pressed Gardeners". Registration is open at Questions? Call 217-877-6042.

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