Getting your garden started seems simple: you dream big, make wish list, then with warm weather, head to the garden center to pick out your plants. But as those doors slide open to the warm, moist air of the greenhouse, a daunting tableau unfolds: bench after bench filled with seedlings, rolling racks bursting with trays, containers crowding floors, until all that’s left is a narrow path snaking down aisles.
At this point, gardeners react either in frenzy, gathering everything within grasp until their cart resembles a Dr. Seuss tower; or in fear, by turning on their heels and fleeing to a more orderly locale. This is understandable: when facing an ocean of plants, how do you know which plants will work, or what to avoid?
“When I first started gardening and went to the store, I was in awe of what they offered; overwhelmed by the number of plants available,” says Diane Blazek, Executive Director for All America Selections, an organization dedicated to testing and recommending plants for gardens in North America (all-americaselections.org/). “But most gardeners just want to know “what’s going to do well in my yard?”
Putting plants through rigorous trials since 1932, All America Selections winnows out the best of the best, finding tough plants that are star performers in almost every garden. Capturing a coveted “AAS Award Winner” designation is like getting the Better Homes and Gardens Seal of Approval, says Blazek, because if they do well in 30 trial gardens across the U.S., they’ll probably grow in your backyard.
“The seed breeding world is competitive; everybody wants their products in front of gardeners. There must be a way to ensure that they live up to their claims, if not, breeders can say whatever they want but it’s not always true,” she said.
To put their claims to the test, corporations, individuals, and universities developing plants enter the yearly trials. “We have plants from large seed companies, but we like to give smaller guys a chance too, like Gordon Smith. He was breeding peppers in his Illinois backyard, entered and won – now we have Cajun Belle, a pepper developed in his home yard. “
Once the breeder has what they think is a winner, the journey from seed to celebrity spans a season. Contestants are entered in November and seed is dispersed to gardens across the country for trialing the following summer. The number of places a plant is tested depends on its category: vegetables are trialed at 32 locations, cool season bedding plants in 25, and flowers in 42 gardens.
Judges are given strict guidelines for growing these plants: do nothing special. “We insist that they treat them like an average gardener would so we’ll see how they are on their own. Don’t spray them, fertilize them more, or treat them special,” says Blazek.
Throughout the season, contenders go through a litany of competitions, where contestants are judged against one another, plus two to four outsiders – ringers that excel in certain traits. “Not a lot of trial programs have testing like ours. We compare them against one plant for size, and another one for disease resistance; then they compete against a third plant to see which is earliest, or a fourth for bloom size. An AAS winner has to be better than them all, in every category.”
Look for 2011’s AAS winners this year:
Gaillardia ‘Arizona Apricot’ (Gailardia x grandiflora) , a blanket flower that blooms all summer
Ornamental Kale ‘Glamour Red’ (Brassica oleracea), for intense color that shows off in fall
Salvia ‘Summer Jewel Red’ (Salvia coccinea), with brilliant red, early spikes of bloom
Viola ‘Shangri-La Marina’ (Viola cornuta), a pale blue, mounding viola for cool locales.
The small pumpkin ‘Hijinks’ and two tomatoes perfect for containers, Lizzano and Terenzo, round out the winners.
- Dick Clark rose an All-America Rose Selection winner (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- High Country Gardens Introduces New Plants for 2011 (prweb.com)