Overton’s A&M Agrilife Center a “how-to” hub for 50 years

Published on Sunday, 2 July 2017 22:58 - Written by JACQUE HILBURN-SIMMONS, jasimmons@tylerpaper.com

OVERTON – Becky Rountree of Henderson digs dirt.

She’s also a fan of birds and bees and beautiful flowers.

So when the opportunity presented to partake in her favorite past time for a good cause, she and a few friends from the Rusk County Master Gardeners were all in.

Up to their elbows in dirt, actually.

“A garden is a work in progress,” she said. “My husband and I work in the yard together … it’s really a lot of fun. I love flowers.”

CELEBRATING SUCCESS

Mrs. Rountree was among hundreds of green thumbs who converged Thursday on Texas A&M’s Agrilife Research and Extension Center in Overton to learn about new products and plants that stand tall in our state’s finicky weather.

The center rolled out the welcome mat to the plant enthusiasts as part of its annual East Texas Horticultural Field Day, highlighting the latest and greatest advances in gardening products.

Rusk and Smith County Master Gardener participants, including Ms. Rountree, started helping the center a few months ago spiff up its test gardens and growing areas, ahead of a day filled with tours and demonstrations.

Field Day is a day to learn which varieties make the cut and which ones don’t, said center director Dr. Charles Long, an A&M faculty member since 1973.

“This is a consumer service,” Long said. “We (East Texas) have the highest rainfall area in the state … we evaluate plants and their ability to survive East Texas. This allows people to pick plants that do well here.”

BLOOMING WITH KNOWLEDGE

If you missed out on this annual pilgrimage to the fields, there’s another opportunity to stop in and soak up some knowledge – the center is set to commemorate 50 years of agricultural science and education during a special ceremony and reception, set for 1:15 p.m. July 12 at the center, 1710 N. Farm-to-Market Road 3053 in Overton.

The free celebration is open to the public and is expected to include special remarks from Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp as well as other supporters.

Last week’s Field Day featured more than 500 ornamental plant and vegetable trial varieties and tips from the experts on boosting success.

There were plenty of familiar, albeit heartier versions of old favorites – begonias, New Guinea impatiens, salvias, coreopsis and pentas.

The occasion also included plenty of experts with a plethora of information on topics ranging from infestations of creepy looking beetles to best practices for keeping Peter Rabbit out of the garden.

Speakers included a lineup of industry veterans – Agrilife’s ornamental horticulturist Dr. Brent Pemberton, vegetable specialist Dr. Joe Masabni and water resource specialist Dr. Dorry Woodson; Dallas Arboretum horticulture director Jenny Wegley; and Buglady Consulting ornamental entomologist Suzanne Wainwright.

Pemberton started the growing trials in 1993 to help commercial seed companies, local nursery managers and gardening enthusiasts evaluate best options for brutal landscaping.

“This is to gain information for the industry and what’s great for our region,” Pemberton said. “I heard a lot of people say they wanted to go home and dig up a garden … I think this (trial garden) is just an idea of things they can grow in their own space.”

Some might wonder why all the fuss over a bunch of flowers.

There’s good reason, according to Pemberton, explaining the industry created a $500 million annual economic impact in East Texas over the past decade.

Consequently, many varieties showcased Thursday will likely show up on retail shelves around the region for all to enjoy.

Participants contacted Thursday give the center’s plant professionals a green thumbs-up.

“We think it’s wonderful,” said Kitty Bennefield, a Master Gardener intern who traveled from San Augustine with a carload full of like-minded plant people. “We try to come every year. There’s a lot of new specifics of plants this year, it’s really gorgeous.”

Her San Augustine peer, Cindi Caston claims a weakness for the yellow begonias while Master Gardener Sharron Stoneham claims the Pride of Barbados, known also as a Mexican Bird of Paradise as her favorite.

“I saw it a couple of years ago,” Ms. Stoneham said. “They are very easy to grow. I just love ‘em.”

To learn more about the center’s July 12 anniversary celebration and other outreach opportunities, call 903-834-6191 or visit www. http://overton.tamu.edu.

TWITTER @ TMT _ Jacque