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 News & Record
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By Alta LeCompte

News & Record Staff

Although the mercury has dipped below 20 degrees, rows of plants sleep peacefully in Edmunds Park. They are nestled under a thick blanket of mulch and protected from marauding deer by an 8-foot fence.

Perched on top of a pole to monitor the precious plants is a sophisticated computer the size of a birdhouse. The solar-powered Campbell Scientific NOAH-style station gathers and transmits weather data to the Extension Office in Halifax.

The technology employed at the one-acre plot is a hallmark of the statewide Virginia Ornamental Plant Evaluation and Introduction Program, a high-stakes program funded in part by the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission. 

Bill McCaleb, who is charge of the local site, said the goal of the program is to help Southside tobacco farmers transition to a new kind of cash crop - landscape plants.

The "winners" will be patented, grown in Southside greenhouses and fields, and marketed throughout the Southeast. The plants will carry Beautiful Gardens (tm) labels to let buyers know they have passed the research test.

"There are opportunities for a greenhouse industry, in particular in the traditional tobacco regions," said McCaleb, horticulture technician and Master Gardener program coordinator in Halifax County.

He noted that the Southside landscape is dotted with empty tobacco greenhouses and idle farm equipment.

"We have everything we need," he said.

Here's how plants will move to market. 

First, a panel of judges - all PhDs - will determine "winners" each year. Dr. Barry Flynn of the Institute for Sustainable and Renewable Resources at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville and other scientists will develop protocols for propagating the plants. The plants will be patented, put into production in greenhouses and fields then sold to commercial nurseries and landscapers.

"We have several plants on the 'fast track' and hope to have two plants available by 2008," McCaleb said.

The first plants to make it to market will be perennials. Researchers will need more time to evaluate the shrubs and trees, he said.

"The Institute is doing the cellular propagation," McCaleb. "They can take a plant cell and look at a genome like scientists do with DNA for a person."

Many of the experimental plants come from private growers, McCaleb said.

 "I just got a plant from a Master Gardener I've known for years that's phenomenal," McCaleb said. "The Institute is working out a protocol. They can take one plant and make 500."

Not all the contenders are Virginia natives.

 "Travelers have given us plant material. We got four plants from Tibet. They were growing in the Himalayas, 5,000 feet above said level. They thrive on the dry slopes, so they're drought resistant and they can withstand extreme temperatures. And Japanese beetles don't like them."

McCaleb knows the flowering mountain plant scares off beetles because he observes the plants as they battle drought, insects, freezing temperatures, summer heat and humidity, and whatever else Mother Nature hurls at them.

In spite of the high-tech and hands-on monitoring, the plants essentially must go it alone. It is, after all, an endurance test.

They are treated to mulch, weed control and water from a sophisticated irrigation system when needed. But they have to take root in the challenging soil and battle the bugs without human intervention.

A recent bout of ice and wind has burned some of plants, while others appear to be doing just fine, McCaleb said.

The statewide program started in 2004 with approximately $650,000 in funding from the Tobacco Commission and other partners. Partners include Virginia Nursery & Landscape Association, Virginia Tech, the Institute in Danville, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Norfolk Botanical Gardens, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, and the Virginia Master Gardener Association.

Halifax County donated parkland for the local site. Halifax was the only county to send a letter of support for the program, McCaleb noted.

Volunteer training, digging a 500-foot well, and site preparation followed.

McCaleb said the volunteers will long remember killing "a gazillion" weeds, dragging a seemingly endless supply of rocks out, then pulling more weeds and removing more rocks - all under a blistering summer sun.

In fall 2005, 44 species were planted.

McCaleb's army of Master Gardeners logged more than 400 hours in the first year.

While the activity slacks off during the winter months, a plant selection committee of academics from Norfolk and Lewis Ginter botanical gardens, other academics and private growers develops a list of plants for trials in 2007, 2008, and 2009.

The lists, McCaleb said, are based on public need. He noted that a growing number of gardeners are seeking plants that tolerate drought and humidity and resist insects and diseases.

 "We're looking for the next Knockout (tm) rose," he said.