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.
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.
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.
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 -
"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
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.
noted that the Southside landscape is dotted with empty tobacco
greenhouses and idle farm equipment.
have everything we need," he said.
how plants will move to market.
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.
have several plants on the 'fast track' and hope to have two plants
available by 2008," McCaleb said.
first plants to make it to market will be perennials. Researchers will
need more time to evaluate the shrubs and trees, he said.
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
of the experimental plants come from private growers, McCaleb said.
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."
all the contenders are Virginia natives.
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."
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.
spite of the high-tech and hands-on monitoring, the plants essentially
must go it alone. It is, after all, an endurance test.
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.
recent bout of ice and wind has burned some of plants, while others appear
to be doing just fine, McCaleb said.
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.
County donated parkland for the local site. Halifax was the only county to
send a letter of support for the program, McCaleb noted.
training, digging a 500-foot well, and site preparation followed.
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.
fall 2005, 44 species were planted.
army of Master Gardeners logged more than 400 hours in the first year.
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.
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.
looking for the next Knockout (tm) rose," he said.