Episode 154: Putting Plants to the Test with Richard Hawke

Richard Hawke is the Director of Ornamental Plant Research at Chicago Botanic Garden, where he oversees comparative evaluations of ornamental plants. The CBG Plant Evaluation Program has included 117 distinct trials over the past four decades, with 26 comparative trials currently underway in three evaluation areas. In 2011, Richard began reporting trial results in Fine Gardening magazine, and has since written dozens of feature articles that can be found by visiting his author page.

In this entertaining episode, Richard Hawke discusses his earliest memories of plants and gardening, the education and internships that laid the foundation for his career, and the joys and challenges of developing a world-class plant trial program. He also digs into the day-to-day details of plant evaluation and talks about some trials that yielded surprising results and some that were particular favorites, including evaluations of clematis, baptisias, butterfly bushes, and tender salvias.

Richard joined the staff of the Chicago Botanic Garden in the mid-1980s. Photo: courtesy of Chicago Botanic Garden
cuttings of various tender salvias
CBG’s trial of tender salvias identified many vigorous cultivars that do well when grown as annuals.
new heucheras
Photos, clockwise from top left: Visions Premium/gapphotos.com, Nova Photo Graphik/gapphotos.com, and courtesy of Richard Hawke

The Chicago Botanic Garden has trialed 198 heucheras since 1995. Find out which cultivars performed better than the classics here.

The Chicago Botanic garden was built on a series of islands, and soil conditions are not ideal. The original trial beds were atop a substrate of clay soil compacted by heavy equipment; the water table is very high, and drainage can be problematic. Richard talks about these soil woes, and the solutions that have improved soil structure and drainage in the newest plant evaluation area.

aerial view of Chicago Botanic Garden
The Chicago Botanic Garden was built on a series of islands with heavy clay soil. Photo: courtesy of Chicago Botanic Garden.
people evaluating plants in trial garden
Field evaluation is a core component of plant trials at Chicago Botanic Garden.
aerial view of trial garden and rooftop garden on Plant Conservation Science Center
The Green Roof Gardens built atop the Plant Conservation Science Center are used to evaluate the suitability of plants for use in green roof assemblies. Photo: courtesy of Chicago Botanic Garden
another aerial view of trial garden
With 26 trials currently underway, the evaluation areas at the Chicago Botanic Garden are a hub of research activity. Photo: courtesy of Chicago Botanic Garden
Richard Hawke evaluating plants in the Chicago Botanic Garden Trial Gardens
Richard now spends much of his time behind a desk, which makes him relish his time in the field even more. Photo: courtesy of Chicago Botanic Garden
plants on trial at Chicago Botanic Garden
The Plant Evaluation Program at Chicago Botanic Garden is one of the largest and most diverse in the nation. Photo: courtesy of Chicago Botanic Garden

Richard Hawke

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