Perennials in Focus: A Brief History
For many decades, American gardens featured annuals or flowering shrubs. But the demand for perennial plants grew in the 1990’s when gardeners and landscaper designers began looking for colorful long-lived plants that would not need replacing every spring.
To respond to the demand, growers introduced many new perennials. The growing process is complex and local nursery staff needed information so they could determine which plants should be grown and in what quantities. They needed a system to identify the most desirable and best-performing plants for the Chicago region.
The Perennials in Focus program started with the sales staff at Midwest Groundcovers in St. Charles, IL, and grower Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennial Farm in Burlington, WI. The group initially visited local gardens to see what was grown and how the plants performed. Some plants were also trialled in the Midwest Groundcovers’ display gardens. Customer focus groups provided feedback on interests and preferences. All the while, the evaluators asked the following:
- How did these new perennial introductions perform in local climates and soils?
- What added benefit did these plants provide over similar plants already on the market?
- Was there a difference in perennial performance on one area site compared to another?
By the late 1990s, the group, by then called the Perennial Evaluation Committee, included 12 participants from local re-wholesalers, garden centers, landscape designers, contractors and growers. The committee, which collectively selected plants for evaluation, met twice a year and took an annual field trip to view perennial gardens in late summer. The committee received perennials for evaluation in their own diverse growing locations. An Excel evaluation form was developed and given to each evaluator to record plant observations throughout the growing season. Final notes were compiled at the end of each year.
The Perennial Evaluation Committee now has 18 volunteer evaluators from all aspects of the green industry including the fields of horticulture education and public horticulture. Perennial plants are evaluated on numerous sites scattered in the Chicagoland area. The sites offer a wide array of soils, light exposures, climates, and garden pests, which make for very comprehensive, final comparisons amongst each evaluated plant. All ratings, ranging from excellent to poor, are published for all to review.
Besides choosing and evaluating perennials that were new or underused, members improved the evaluation process by modifying evaluation forms and methodology for assessing plant performance. The committee also established a mission statement and formalized its work by defining job and committee descriptions.
Prior to 2008, the members of this committee had not been able to agree on a name that best represented what they were trying to accomplish, nor did they have a way to share their evaluation results with the gardening public and green industry. This changed in 2008, when the new name of Perennials in Focus was chosen. Soon after, a partnership with College of DuPage was fostered, and with their help, the development of a logo and web site was underway. The first web site was launched in 2009, providing valuable information on all perennials evaluated and summarized in the “Perennial Snapshots.” The web site was enhanced in 2017.