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The Endless Search for Winning Plants

Every year, Proven Winners® trial managers evaluate thousands of plants — yet only a select few make the cut. Learn how they find the best.

We asked Kevin Hurd, Proven Winners Director of New Products, to walk us through the very tough selection process for Proven Winners plants. It’s a complex process, and it doesn’t happen overnight.

Proven Profits: Where do you find plants for Proven Winners trials?

Kevin Hurd: We have many long-standing relationships with breeders, large and small, and they often bring us new ideas. That’s how Diamond Frost® Euphorbia and Snow Princess® Lobularia were discovered.

We visit a lot of breeders, see what they’re trialing and seek varieties that we would like to see improved or faults we would like to correct. We have our own ‘genetic roadmap’ of improvements we would like to see. An example of this is Senorita Rosalita® Cleome, developed without thorns.

Kevin Hurd and the Proven Winners trial managers travel often to various breeders to see the plants they are trialing and discuss potential plant improvements in the works.


PP: How does the trialing process work?

KH: Once we find plants we want to trial, we send them to the Proven Winners members’ locations for growing in different conditions: Sunny and low humidity in California; hot and humid in Michigan; and less hot and humid in New Hampshire. We have a separate private trial in Florida where we evaluate plants in heat and humidity, as well as cold conditions. This trialing is done simultaneously through fall and winter.

The trial managers evaluate plants in propagation trials, in greenhouse trials, in 4.25-in. Grande™ containers and hanging baskets, as well as outdoors to test summer performance. This past winter, we had approximately 2,700 plants in trials.

Plants are tested at all three Proven Winners members’ locations, as well as a separate, private trial in Florida. Here, plants experience heat, humidity and cold conditions.


How We Trial at Four Star

Betsy Kollman Bresky is Four Star’s Trial Manager.

We asked Betsy Kollman Bresky, Trial Manager at Four Star Greenhouse, how she trials and evaluates potential Proven Winners plants.

PP: It’s early summer of 2014 — what plants are you trialing now?
BKB: Actually, I’m trialing three different sets of plants: The current 2015 introductions; this year’s trials (for 2016 introductions); and a selected group of plants ready for the next trials to start in October (2017 introductions).

PP: That must keep you busy! How long does this entire process last?
BKB: It takes a while! It starts with breeder visits. As an example, we may ask the breeder to develop a certain characteristic in a plant during my next visit. The breeder will make the cross this year, sow it next year, and have plants for us to evaluate in trials for the 2018 or 2019 introductions. If that does well, the plant would be introduced and breeders would start getting royalties in 2019 or 2020. This is if all goes well with trialing and disease screening. I’ve outlined the best case scenario and about as fast as an introduction can be moved forward.

That’s why royalties are so important. All the plant royalties Proven Winners collects flow back to the breeders, who keep plant innovation alive.

Trials at Four Star primarily test plants under hot and humid growing conditions in smaller containers and hanging baskets. Here, several baskets are evaluated.

PP: How do you work with the Four Star Product Line Managers (PLMs) to make sure plants you’re trialing can be grown successfully?
BKB: Growers want a plant that works well in their environment, and consumers want a plant that works well in theirs. My challenge is to find a plant that can work in both.

From experience, I know how a trial plant’s habit can translate from a larger container to a smaller production container, and I along with the PLMs can make educated guesses on how well that plant can be produced by growers. Once we get to the stage where we have potential introductions, I walk our PLMs through them and we discuss potential production challenges and how to address them. Our focus then becomes: Can it be produced effectively?

From the time a plant is selected in September until it is introduced at CAST in April, we mimic the growing application by placing it with similar plants — a new Superbena® is grown with an existing Superbena, etc.

PP: Do you have any favorites from the recent 2015 introductions?
BKB: I really like Luscious® Marmalade Lantana. It’s got a fantastic, solid orange color, great vigor, broad shoulders and a great habit, giving a nice burst of color in the garden.

Another favorite is Superbena Royale Cherryburst Verbena. This plant also has great color, branching and vigor, plus a star pattern that looks great up close and gives what I call “65-mph” color from a distance. The star pattern really makes it pop!

Betsy Kollman Bresky Named to GPN’s “40 Under 40”

GPN magazine has named Betsy Kollman Bresky to its latest “40 Under 40” list of outstanding young industry professionals. Betsy was recently recognized at a GPN reception held during Cultivate ‘14 in Columbus, Ohio. The “40 Under 40” group are selected for their exceptional work now and their abilities to be industry leaders in the future.

Read more about how Betsy Kollman Bresky trials plants here.

PP: What characteristics do you look for? Are some more important than others?

KH: We look for a lot of characteristics, but they have to add up to success for the home gardener. We study flowering, color, branching, vigor, disease resistance, heat and drought tolerance, and many other factors. The main factor, in home gardeners’ minds, is a healthy, vigorous plant. All our tests are focused on making sure these plants will grow vigorously for the end consumer.

Of course, we also look for plants that growers can grow successfully, but the emphasis at Proven Winners is success for the consumer. We want home gardeners to say, “I can grow plants!”

PP: So how do you get from 2,700+ plants down to around 50?

KH: Once we start trialing in the fall, we slowly narrow it down, constantly dropping plants that don’t perform to our standards. We also have three scheduled drops: In March after winter trials; in June; and in early August. During the last two drops, the entire Proven Winners trial team visits all the testing sites to compare notes and evaluate and select plants together.

After our recent June drop, there are only about 750+ left in the group. After the August drop, there will be about 50 plants that make the cut from the original group of 2,700.

PP: What if a plant performs really well in one or two of the Proven Winners trialing locations but not in another?

KH: Plants that have done well for one or more propagator, but not for all three, often become Proven Selections® varieties. They are terrific plants and have been proven to do well in their growing regions.

A plant may also become a Proven Selections variety if it meets our standards but is not available exclusively to Proven Winners.

PP: What happens after the upcoming August drop? Will this group be the new Proven Winners introductions for 2016?

KH: Not yet. The Proven Winners members then evaluate each plant in terms of logistics, economics, production considerations and other factors. The members vote on plants to move to the next level.

That final group of plants moves into greenhouse production through the winter and the Product Line Managers (PLMs) work with Trial Managers to determine proper culture and production methods (see sidebar to the right). Once the plants pass this extensive production test, they are introduced to the market at the California Spring Trials.

Kevin Hurd, Proven Winners Director of New Products, and his family.


PP: There were a lot of new introductions for 2015. Do you have a favorite plant from that group?

KH: The one I’m most excited about is Vermillionaire™ Cuphea. It is an interspecific cross that is tough as nails. It really shines in my garden right now and I’ve never seen it look bad. It’s one of those plants that everyone can grow, and hummingbirds just love it!

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