Research center blooms
The Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant near De Soto has been long abandoned. The main entrance looks like a desolate ghost town with paint peeling off the buildings of muted tones in gray and tan. Signs that are now barely legible depict the Wizard of Oz with Dorothy and the gang saying "Follow the road to safety."
Four giant towers stand at attention in the Kansas sky like larger-than-life soldiers. An American flag languidly flops against the pole on which it is perched - not even the breeze is alive. The spooky, eerie atmosphere reeks of a catastrophic event.
Luckily, some of the approximately 9,000 acres where workers used to make ammunition now is focused on beauty, not destruction.
Nestled on 345 acres in the southeast corner of the plant is the Kansas State Horticulture Research & Extension Center. On this bend of the massive compound life is bustling, landscaped beds are brimming with ornamental grasses and soon-to-be colorful blooms, the living are here returning this barren place into a flora fantasy where the best of the best are tested, tried, poked, prodded, ignored and coddled.
In 1996, Alan Stevens began the Prairie Star and Prairie Bloom program. Stevens, a floriculture specialist and director of the center subjects plants to a litany of conditions to see which species have the roots to withstand our unpredictable Kansas climate.
Stevens, along with three other professors and two research assistants test all plants submitted by any plant breeders. They do not screen plants for entry into the field trials.
"We receive entries (plants) into the field trials from plant breeders and plant distribution companies from all around the world," Stevens says. "The seeds or cuttings are propagated in our greenhouses here at the center and then planted out into the field in mid to late May. They are grown under what we term 'lazy gardener' care: never watered more than once a week, not pinched or dead headed and exposed to full sun and wind. The plants are fertilized regularly with small amounts of nitrogen. Phosphorus is only added if the soil test shows that it is deficient."
So for gardeners out there who are tired of spending a small fortune at the nurseries in the spring only to find those plants sad and pathetic come autumn, the Prairie Star and Prairie Bloom collections should be a fail-safe plant paradise for you.
The plants in the collections are not native plants. They are, however, plants that are research-proven to be well adapted to our ever-changing and always-challenging prairie climate.
"Planting adapted plants such as these helps to protect our environment in that they thrive here without any special care or chemicals," Stevens says.
What do they look for in a stellar Kansas plant?
"Annual flowers are evaluated in mid June for early color and then in mid July and August after the summer heat stress has separated out the well adapted varieties from the pretenders," Stevens says, "If the plant exhibits outstanding vigor and floriferousness for a minimum of two years it will qualify for inclusion in the Prairie Bloom collection."
Stevens has a few favorites that he says "all grow like crazy and bloom like crazy under lazy gardener care."
Some examples, wit Stevens' comments:
¢ Vista Pink Bubblegum Petunia - "It's highly vigorous and extremely floriferous all season long. Heat and drought tolerant, requires no special care, no deadheading. The most fantastic of all petunias for Kansas gardeners. Grows 6 to 8 inches tall and one plant may grow up to 6 feel across."
¢ Diamond Frost Euphorbia - "It's a great filler plant similar to baby's breath except that it is self cleaning - you don't have to clean out dead flowers to maintain it's appearance, they just seem to evaporate. Highly heat and drought tolerant, the plants may not look like much in small pots in the garden centers but they are very special in the garden or in patio planters."
¢ Black Pearl Ornamental Pepper - "This plant is part of a new trend in gardening: floriferousness. Wow, look at the color of that foliage. Black pearl has very dark almost black foliage which when planted next to something really light or bright pops them both out. It is a very useful plant to have in any gardener's plant palette. The small black pearl size peppers which turn red as they mature in late summer are a nice extra bonus."
The center is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the weekdays. It is not staffed to provide tours but visitors are welcome to look around. All of the flowers in the research trials are nicely labeled so a visitor can easily evaluate and compare the plants on their own.
The best time to visit is in July and August, when the plants have had time to mature.
"We have an annual open house on the last Saturday of July," Stevens adds. "It is the one day where every scientist doing research at the center is out in the fields to provide tours, talk about their research and answer questions. Flowers, small fruits, vegetables, trees, roses, grass and organic production methods are among the areas being researched at the center."
Most area nurseries should be familiar with the Prairie Star and Prairie Bloom program and will be able to lead you to the various plants of merit that Stevens and his associates have tested and researched so you don't have to. Here's to happy spring planting.
Jennifer Oldridge, a Kansas University graduate, is an avid gardener who previously operated a landscaping business.