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GROW INSPIRED: KENDRA ODELIA HUTCHINS ON RESEARCH, FLOWER TRIALS AT CORNELL

Our #GrowInspired series features our innovative and creative garden partners. Whether they’re working with two acres or 200 square feet, we are constantly in awe of their hard work and kick-ass gardens. These are some of our favorite growers and gardeners who inspire us to get out and play in the dirt.

Kendra Odelia Hutchins is a Research Support Specialist and Manager of the Annual Flower Trials at Cornell University. Besides being a part of one of our favorite alma maters (co-owner Morgan and friend Marty both went there), Kendra gets to trial over 150 flower varieties at the Cornell Botanic Gardens each year, while also helping with a variety of agriculture projects under two horticulture professors. She literally lives and breathes horticulture on a daily basis and we were so excited to chat with her about the important work that she does. Enjoy! 

How Kendra Got Into Horticulture 

I actually started off in a completely different field. In my younger years I was an English major and ended up working at a place doing some editing work for a company that worked on teacher certification tests and it was extremely boring and very corporate. During this time I found a lot of joy and release in gardening. So I gardened and gardened and gardened to help relieve my stress and I eventually decided that I wanted to learn more about it. In my undergraduate work I was actually a double major in Bio/English so I went back to take a few more classes and ended up getting my second undergraduate degree in plant insect and soil sciences at the University of Massachusetts. From there I just kept on going; I got a Masters Degree from Cornell University and have been working for two horticultural professors at Cornell since then. I really just rolled into the position that I’m in now from there and it’s really been awesome. 

How Kendra Ended Up (And Stayed) At Cornell 

While getting my second undergraduate degree at UMASS I was a technician for one of my professors and I really loved doing that but unfortunately he passed away and I had to figure out what I was going to do next. So I ended up going to Cornell for a Master’s Degree in plant breeding and genetics. I had been in the doctoral program but decided that I did not like all of the molecular work and my passion was more on the horticultural side, so I finished with a Master’s Degree and decided I wanted to work more hands-on with plants, which I love. 

What Does Kendra Do At Cornell? Spoiler: It’s Super Awesome

I’m a research support specialist for two professors, which means I'm involved in all kinds of different projects, which is great. It's really cool because I work with a diversity of people and projects at any given time. One of my professors works in controlled environment agriculture, so I do a lot of work supporting students who are working on projects with greenhouse lighting, hydroponics, growth chamber work, and more. 

The other professor I work for does a lot of work with bulbs, such as Tulips, Daffodils, and Lilies. I help him manage the greenhouse, lab, and field experiments.  

On The Annual Flower Trials At Cornell, AKA Kendra’s Favorite Part Of Her Job

The annual [flower] trials are my absolute favorite and it’s a huge part of my job, particularly in the summer. What that involves is me being in touch with breeding companies, or often they contact me, to see if I would like to trial their varieties; their new releases or improved varieties in our geographic location. What that involves is them sending me their plant material and sometimes that could be seed, rooted cuttings, or unrooted cuttings. I grow them in the greenhouse and for seed crops I schedule everything else so they'll all be ready at the same time for planting in June. Then we plant them out in June and start evaluating them about two weeks after we transplant them. 

When evaluating the plants, we look at things like the overall flowering impact, how floriferous the plant is, the plant habit – is it rangy, is it compact, is it well-branched – and then the foliage quality (shape, color, texture, is it healthy), and then we assign it an overall landscape value. We evaluate on those criteria every two weeks and then at the end of the summer I summarize all of that and get it back to the breeding companies. We also take photos of every cultivar every two weeks and we send that all back to the breeding companies and they use that for either further development of the plant, tweaking it if it needs more breeding work, or they use the photos in their marketing to provide information to growers in our Northeast region. They can tell growers that – for example – it grew great in Ithaca, New York, so it should work for them in the Northeast. 

Each year we have about 150-200 species in the trials and they are open to the public; we encourage people to visit and we love having visitors. The trials are located right outside the Nevin Welcome Center at the Cornell Botanic Gardens. Visitors are really one of the parts of the trials that I love the most. We used to be located at an off-campus research facility which was great because it was quiet and you could easily get your work done, but nobody got to see the plants! We had field days but that was typically industry folks and now being right on campus and outside the welcome center we get about 80,000 people coming through each year. So that’s amazing. People can come see what goes into breeding work, what these companies are doing, and see how plants do in this climate before they purchase their plants at a garden center. 

How Kendra Plans The Trials 

I used to design the trials like a garden, but it’s really better when you put like things together. For example, we keep all the Verbenas together, we keep all the Sedum together, we keep all of the Petunias together. Within that framework, I try to make it as pretty as possible with placing complimentary colors next to each other and making sure I put the shorter plants in front and creating a good flow to the best of my ability. The other tricky thing with trialing is I don’t get to pick what they send me, so every year it’s a little bit like a puzzle putting all of the plants together – some years I have one random cultivar and have to just put it in there and make it work. 

I really just try to make it as pretty as possible and at the end of it all of they are all usually really beautiful plants that have been trialled extensively before, so it’s almost impossible to fail. 

When it comes to weather, it really varies year to year. We got record rain this year so that was definitely a challenge; you could really see that some of the plants suffered. But that’s all part of the trialing process. We’ve had company representatives tell us that sometimes you learn more in an extraordinarily bad weather year than you do when all the conditions are perfect! You really get to see what the plants are made of and it can be really surprising. Sometimes plants that you thought would have pooped out in the bad weather perform beautifully – and vice versa – so you really learn a lot. 

Kendra’s Home Garden 

I just moved from a place that had very little sun, it was very heavily-wooded so I couldn’t grow much. In September I just relocated to a new place that gets a lot of sun and I have space for a garden. I'm super excited because now I can grow my own things and do more containers. During the summer there are times where I go home and definitely don’t want to garden, but I’m really excited to get some pretty plants in the ground. 

Kendra’s Favorite Plants 

That's so difficult. I really love Coleus and it's funny because you don't really grow Coleus for their flowers, but they’re so pretty. The foliage is striking and there are so many interesting color variations and leaf textures – some of them are fringed and they often get quite big which provides interest. I think of them as anchor points for the garden; they don’t have to be super showy, some of them can be these beautiful color blocks. So they really are some of my favorites. 

In terms of flowering plants, we grew a Dahlia this year that was really versatile. You could grow it in a pot or in the landscape and it was just beautiful. I really like Dahlias for their flower shape and color. But I really love all [flowering plants], each one has it’s unique contribution to make in the landscape. 

On Using C-BITEs In The Trials 

I used C-BITEs for the Thunbergia (Black-Eyed Susan Vine) and the plant got really out of control but I was so impressed with the C-BITEs because they didn’t collapse. Sometimes you trellis things and they just kind of fall over and this Thunbergia was pretty powerful so I was actually really impressed with the C-BITEs. 

What Kendra Loves About Cornell 

I love the Cornell community and I feel like Cornell really takes care of its people. For a pretty big organization, I've been really impressed with how they handled the Covid situation – they have tried to keep everybody employed. I know there are a lot of people who may have gripes about the workplace, but for me it really feels like a community where people truly care for each other. I feel really lucky to be here, honestly. I’ve been employed here for over ten years in one capacity or another, which doesn’t count my graduate school days. 

On Interacting With Students 

One of the best parts of my job is that I get to interact with students all the time. So during the summer, I always have one intern that is specifically dedicated to the trials and then I get to work with graduate and undergraduate students. It's so exciting to me to be able to work with students who are coming up into this industry. It feels great to be a part of that because I feel like we need younger people in this field and need to encourage people to become involved. So being able to do that gives me great joy. When people ask me about the trials I always talk about enjoying the actual gardening part of it, but I think an important part of why I love the job I do is that I get to work with the students and watch them grow as well.

You can follow the Cornell Annual Trials on Instagram @CornellAnnualTrialsProgram


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