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Flower power science: CSU’s trial gardens open for annual competition

Collegian | Jenn Dawson
Flowers in the CSU Annual Flower Trial Garden Aug. 22, 2023.

Colorado State University’s version of “flower power” is not only a Fort Collins main attraction but also the most popular, colorful and interactive science project on campus. The Flower Trial Gardens are in the middle of their annual competition, when the public votes alongside green industry professionals for the best plants of 2023.

The department of horticulture and landscape architecture — with the help of dedicated student employees — hosts and maintains more than 1,000 varieties of plants just outside the University Center for the Arts. The blooms attract visitors, scientists and students throughout the warm seasons, permitting Colorado’s unpredictable frosts remain on hold from May to October.


Right now is an ideal time to wander through the garden and cast votes for the best flowers of the year.

“The salvia — the red one on the corner — I think that’s my favorite,” guest Linda Aley said while strolling past Bed A before dropping off her grandson at business school. “The hummingbirds go nuts for it.”

The trial gardens first launched in 1971 and transitioned to the park on Remington Street in 2000, according to the garden website, where there awaited 5,000 square feet of bedding space and 20,000 square feet of total planting space. In 2016 the UCA officially became the permanent home of Fort Collins’ favorite flowery research project, leaving behind the W.D. Holley Plant Environmental Research Center to undergo new development.

“Due to its close proximity of the Perennial Trials and the Annual Flower Trial across the street, the site is becoming known as the Fort Collins Garden and Art District,” the website reads.

David Staats has seen the garden grow for the last 30 years as a research associate for the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Just go out and enjoy it,” Staats said. “(We’re) glad to have visitors. And invite your friends — we do this every year.”

Public feedback is valuable information to researchers and the industry professionals who judge the competition. 

“You can probably vote all the way through September,” Staats said, though ultimately, Colorado’s first frost determines the true deadline when the flowers resign from their rivalry.

“The begonias — they’ll just keep looking better and better right up until the very first frost, whereas some other plants will start looking tired,” Staats said.


Though everyone has their favorites, this year’s winners are far from decided.

“I like one called Supertunia Mini Vista, and it comes in a whole bunch of different colors,” Staats said. “You can see them from across the garden — they really stand out. Every single color is very impressive.”

I like the GEM series from Lantana,” said Erin Simpson, a student employee found tending the plants between classes. “They also smell really nice — like grapefruit. It’s called GEM Citrine.”

Simpson recounted a summer of full-time work with two other student-workers, running and maintaining the garden.

“I’ve worked with them all summer, so they’re like my little children, and I’m watching them grow up,” Simpson said while looking over each flower bed she had tended for 40 hours a week. “Now that we’re all back in school, we all just pop in when we can. Today I don’t have a class until noon, so I’m going to weed until 11:30.”

Until winter hits Colorado and the flowers have completed their trials, the garden remains full of life, precious pollinators and welcome guests. Once industry professionals have completed their second evaluation and the flowers have finally retired, the long-awaited winners will be announced, securing their place in next year’s coveted Best of Bed.

Reach Jenn Dawson at or on Twitter @JennFriend_y.

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About the Contributor
Jenn Dawson
Jenn Dawson, Science Editor

Jenn Dawson's audacious plan to change the world involves brain sciences, data and science communication, investigative journalism and community education alongside strong notes of ethics, justice, persistence and inclusion — with subtle hints of comedy, music and family.

With the help of her nontraditional journey through education, Dawson aims to use her future degrees in psychology and journalism to seek the truth and share what she learns. There's no better way to get started doing just that than taking on the privilege of starting up The Collegian's first science desk. On the rare occasions that project and assignment due dates are not imminent, Dawson plays Dungeons & Dragons and video games, forages and takes photos in the mountains, enjoys Fort Collins and plays music.  Dawson's other focuses are advocacy-oriented, and she's always on the lookout for the most effective ways to support the causes she cares for the most. She loves participating in local organizations and community projects. Notably, Dawson is excited to work with the Northern Colorado Deliberative Journalism Project, a local media collaboration project with a goal to reconsider the nature of journalism. Thank you for supporting students, local news and The Collegian!

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