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A "Trial Run" - Visiting the Annual Sale at the UGA Trial Garden

3/10/2024 4:29 pm

"A Trial Run" - 

Visiting the Annual Sale at the UGA Trial Garden


According to my plant records, I've been visiting the UGA Trial Garden sale since 2015. In that time, a lot has changed. One thing that hasn't, however, is that I will not miss it if I have a choice! It is so good a sale that my sister will often time her visit from Philadelphia to attend it with me.


Pre-pandemic, the UGA Trial Garden sale was part of a trio of sales called "Plantapalooza," occurring alongside sales at the State Botanic Garden of Georgia and by the UGA Horticuture Club. After the interruption of Covid, Plantapalooza disintegrated (thanks to the UGA Bulldogs regularly hosting a well-attended practice game on campus during usual State Botanic Garden sale date meaning no parking availability for the UGA Trial Garden Sales).


Pricing of plants at the Trial Garden used to be highly variable and close to retail prices. During a one-year pandemic drive up sale, everything dipped to $5 (and oh my, did I score big even if I had to wait in line two hours for pick up). In 2022 and 2023, plants were generally sold in a slimmer and more affordable range of prices -- one of the few inflation busters in recent history. Most items were between $5 to $15.


In those early Plantapalooza years, I was more interested in amassing shrubs and perennials for a new home so I didn't get to the Trial Garden Sale until my second or third stop. This is a mistake I will not repeat! Or at least it would be a mistake for me today, when I have little personal need left for the trees, shrubs, vegetable starts or the native perennials that the State Botanic Garden is now heavily marketing. Anyway, now that the Trial Garden Sale is a solo event (with an overlapping opportunity to visit the multiple day UGA Horticulture Club Sale), there is no conflict. I show up at opening. Even if torrential rain accompanies my departure as in 2023.


Why, you ask, do I trek to Athens every year for this sale dragging reluctant friends and family along, all of whom are initially skeptical of the bother of getting up and out by 6:30 am to make the 8:00 opening?



Simple. There are plants for sale that I could spend months researching and searching for elsewhere that are the backbone of my garden from spring to fall. These are neither common plants nor easily located plants. Yes, most are ANNUALS. And there was a time in my gardening life that I eschewed annuals as gaudy, unworthy or wasteful. Then after many years of watching the dearth of perennial blooms in the dregs of summer (think late July and August), I re-thought this (whilst still eschewing common annuals). Morevoer, there will be a few perennial plants of great merit available too.


The bottom line is that many of the plants sold at the Trial Garden sale are not commonly found at your neighborhood box store or even some of our great independent nurseries. Instead, the horticultural students at UGA are seeding, dividing and otherwise propagating interesting and diverse plants to see how they will do in our state and potentially in retail. If the plants are successful, they might show up at nurseries in time. 


We never know for a week or two before the sale exactly what will be sold. UGA will post a list eventually, which I will share with those interested. However, from years of visiting, there are some things that I know we can count on finding if you get there early.  At the end of this article is my list of personal treasures to seek out.  


But first, some words of advice. Eat something before you leave home or in the car. Come with an empty trunk. Whether you park in the nearby covered garage or the lot closest to the Trial Gardens, you will probably need to drive up to pick up your purchases if you don't have your own cart. Don't worry, however, the Trial Garden has a well-oiled system for this collection process.


So, on your marks, ready and go! Grab a cart as soon as you see one. Expect to buy more than you think you will. If you don't score a cart, grab a corner of the loading dock and set your plants down with a note "Held".  Sometimes these signs are available on site. Last year I brought a placard indicating the plants were being held for Georgia Perennial members. This year maybe we'll bring some cardstock and markers so Kathleen Dumitrescu and I don't get confused who bought what! (We're confused enough regularly as it is!)


If you aren't certain you want a plant you see, I suggest you stick it in your cart or at the loading dock until you can reassess. Chances are it won't be there when you go back to look! Grab what you think your friend might like. This is pretty much a game of "Supermarket Sweep," where you grab what looks good and then calm down and review before you pay. Dithering will mean you lose out. Endurance is important!


You will find succulents, houseplants, tropicals, tender annuals and perennials. You will see some of the best foliage plants you could hope for. You will have fun. You will feel exhausted after shopping. It's okay. There is time to rest and recoup after loading your plants. The Hort Club sale that you should visit afterward is a much gentler and leisurely event. The material there is high quality but not competitive shopping worthy.


My Plant Recommendations If Available

Antigozanthus (Kangaroo paw) -  ANNUAL  Hummingbirds adored this all summer into fall last year




Acalypha ‘Pride of BJ’ and other Acalyphas - ANNUAL  Fabulous foliage plants in shades of copper, green, red, some with hand sized leaves




Abutilon 'Apricot', 'Grapefruit' and others (Flowering Maple) - PERENNIAL/TENDER PERENNIAL





Asystasia gangetica variegata (Striped Ganges Primrose) loves a container in sun; variegated leaves are stunning in design and tubular lavender flowers go throughout the summer attracting hummingbirds and butterflies - ANNUAL



Celosia forms - Some of the more unusual and new shapes are often here - ANNUAL


Cestrum nocturnum (Night Blooming Jasmine) - ANNUAL 


Clerodendron sp. esp Clerodendrum incisum 'Musical Note' and Clerodendrum thomsoniae


Clerodendrum thomsoniae



Coleus in an astounding array of colors and forms (and the Coleus Society will show up and grab these fast) - ANNUAL


Cuphea cyanea, Cuphea micropetalum and especially Cuphea xVermillionaire PERENNIAL (though no experience yet on Vermillionaire returning). The single best hummingbird plant I have ever seen is Cuphea xVermillionaire.






Euphorbia firucalei ‘Sticks on Fire’ - a great container plant  that looks like coral going from green shades to coral and reds. (Highly toxic to animals - I plant up high in container). ANNUAL


Justicia brandegeeana (Shrimp Plant) - turned out to be a hummingbird and butterfly favorite - ANNUAL



Orthosiphon labiatus (Pink Shell Bush) - ANNUAL  I haven't seen this in a couple of years, but it was charming and did return a second year once.


Orthsiphon stamineus - (Blue cat whiskers) - ANNUAL I did not expect this to be a hummingbird and butterfly magnet, but it was and since the flowers are on tall spikes, it made viewing great. Look for the hummer supping below!



Plectranthus Mona Lavender' or 'Velvet Elvis' or nearly any kind of Plectranthus! ANNUAL - may reseed. These can take a good deal of shade and bloom for a very long time. Tubular flowers bring hummingbirds too.


Plectranthus 'Velvet Elvis'


Ricin (Castor Bean) - ANNUAL that can reseed. If you have the space, they often offer the red stalked version, a tall stunner for the back of the garden. Highly toxic.


Salvia ‘Rocker Fuschia’ - an ANNUAL sage that has height (18-24") and a shrub-like presence in the garden. Liked it even better than Salvia 'Wendy's Wish' last year. Nonstop blooms. Hummingbirds voted yes too.


Senecio 'Kilimanjaro' - ANNUAL.  A stunning silver grey succulent for a pot that grows upward and outward.


Sinningia species (Hardy Gloxinia)  - PERENNIAL. These need drier soils and lots of sun to perform well. Great for containers.



Sinningia 'Lovely'




Spilanthes (Eyeball or Toothache plant) - ANNUAL.  For the connoisseur of the weird. Good front of border interest if you like yellow balls creeping along the ground. I do. Homeopathic too.


Stachytarpheta frantzii (Purple Porterweed) - ANNUAL.  Another weird plant that is beloved by hummingbirds so I always make room for it if I can find it. The blooms are sequential up the stems so it is never stunning as you might expect, but it has many bloom branches and the butterfly, hummingbird and bee interest is enormous. Supposedly the flowers are ant-repelling so I may wear them this year!



Stachytarpheta mutabilis (Red Porterweed) - ANNUAL. A shorter form of porterweed with the same pollinator fabulousness.  Great size for containers.




Strobilanthes hamiltoniana (Chinese Rain Bells) - PERENNIAL. A late blooming plant for partial shade that flowers from September to a hard frost. Grows to 3' high.  Charming!




Tecomaria capensis ‘Tangerine' and others (Cape Honeysuckle) - ANNUAL. Open branched with tubular flowers that range in yellow to orange to reddish, this has an open shrub habit. Pollinators, including hummingbirds, love it. Can take full sun to part shade. Blooming can be erratic. Only issue is that soil may need a hit of fertilizing with phosphorus. I used bone meal last year to good effect. Note: In zone 9 and higher, this plant can grow huge. I've never had it overwinter, let alone get more than 3-4' tall.  Maybe with heavy mulch it might overwinter.