Home Trials – A Research Opportunity for Manitoba Gardeners

The garden where the Home Garden Trial happened this year. This is a demonstration garden at the Mennonite Heritage Village that shows visitors what a Mennonite home garden would have looked like in pioneer days. Planting and tending this garden was Elsie Kathler’s volunteer project this year.

By Elsie Kathler, Master Gardener

Interest in vegetable gardening has grown exponentially since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. More and more households are taking on the challenge of growing their own food with the goal of having a successful vegetable garden. To reach this goal, these gardeners need to take time to select a superior variety of vegetable whose plants are adapted to our prairie climate, have consistently high yields, are very tasty and a have a good resistance to disease and insects. On the other hand, gardeners who plant a more inferior variety will likely see disappointing results despite how well they treat their soil, water and weed their gardens.

With the numerous varieties that are available at garden centres and seed catalogues, how do we know which varieties will perform well in our climate and in our gardens? Several universities in the prairie region have been carrying out research to identify the best varieties with commercial market growers in mind and have a list of varieties that performed best in their research. Sarah Williams and Hugh Skinner, authors of “Gardening Naturally” have stated that while this research was done for commercial growers, these varieties are of equal value for home gardeners. The recommended varieties can be found in Sara and Hugh’s “Gardening Naturally” book. South of the border, the North Dakota State University also carries out variety research at its Research Stations in North Dakota. However, the North Dakota State University has gone one step further by developing a research program that is based on a partnership with home gardeners. This new research program identifies superior varieties for home gardens, by determining which varieties perform best in home gardens under the management of home gardeners.

Under this research program, the North Dakota State University’s Horticultural staff invites home gardeners in North Dakota and Manitoba to participate in home trials evaluating two varieties of each vegetable for a series of traits such as germination rate, plant health, resistance to disease and insects, yield, taste, and quality of harvests. They wish to know which of the two varieties you prefer and which (if any) you would recommend to other gardeners.

Each year the staff at the North Dakota State University select varieties that are widely available and show promise to thrive in prairie regions. In many instances these newer varieties will be paired with varieties that are commonly grown in the region.

Home gardeners participating in this program can choose which vegetables they wish to trial from a list of varieties that are available in the current year. Gardeners will receive seed to plant up to a 10-foot row, row labels, and simple yet detailed instructions on laying our their plot and planting their seeds, and an evaluation form to be used for evaluating the varieties. In all cases, the home gardeners sign a pledge before they receive theirs seeds, promising to do all they can to evaluate varieties fairly. There is a minimal fee for handling and mailing of seeds. Evaluations must be submitted at the end of the growing season. Upon receiving results from gardeners, typically soon after frost, the North Dakota State University will compile the results and send a final report to all gardeners. Summaries and full reports that are published on the North Dakota State University website provide guidance for home gardeners in selecting a superior variety.

Home garden trial of fall radishes that were planted in late August and then harvested six weeks later. I liked the Rover variety better because it had a more robust taste.

Two Manitoba Master Gardeners, Annette Schewe from, St. Anne, and Elsie Kathler from Steinbach have been participating in these Home Trials for several years. Being part of a fraternity of 385 home gardeners participating in these Home Trials has been a fascination journey for these two Master Gardeners. The Home Trials also gave them exposure to new varieties with better yields that they have planted in subsequent years.

If you are interested in participating in this Home Trials Research Program or would like information, contact:

Tom Kalb
North Dakota State University
2718 Gateway Avenue, Suite 304
Bismarck, ND 58503