In the Garden: And the winners for plants of the year are ...
Every year since 1932 the All-America Selections judges have evaluated new varieties of seeds using a nationwide network of test gardens. Entries with the highest average scores are worthy of winning the prestigious AAS Award. Skeptics complain that due to the wide differences in growing conditions across the country, one variety cannot be perfect nationwide and many of these highly acclaimed winners are dropped from the catalogs in a few years.
To address the issue of nationwide suitability, this year they have started awarding regional picks. Even though this gives us a high number of winners – nine regional and 10 national – it doesn’t begin to approach the 1934 record of 30 AAS winners.
Looking at the list of previous award-winning plants I am surprised by how many have a place in our garden every year. So often we fall under the spell of a catalog description of a plant only to be disappointed by the real thing, but many of the AAS winners really do live up to the hype. “Carmen,” a 2006 winner, has become my favorite pepper; each year it produces huge red peppers that actually look like the catalog pictures. And I could not get through winter without the reliable “Waltham” butternut squash, a 1970 winner. The list goes on – “Diva” cukes, 2002; “Fernleaf” dill, 1992; “Sunburst” patty pan squash, 1984; “Bright Lights” chard, 1998; “Sugar Snap” peas, 1979; “Purple Wave” petunias, 1995.
Here are this year’s winners. Perhaps there’s a new favorite lurking there, just waiting for its chance to impress. For New England there is just one regional award winner “Patio Baby” eggplant. This plant is perfect for container growers who want tiny, 3-inch-long eggplants on an ornamental plant.
The national vegetable winners are:
∎ “Mascotte” bush bean, a disease resistant, compact plant that bears lots of slender 5- to 6-inch beans 50 days from sowing. Another vegetable that is good for containers and small gardens.
∎ “Nu-Mex Easter,” a pepper that comes from the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University. Clusters of tiny hot fruits of lavender and cream turn orange when ripe, making it a very ornamental plant. The plants are truly tiny, too; growing only 6 inches tall, they are great for an edible border edging or to be grown in containers.
∎ “Fantastico” tomatoes. which produce 1/2-ounce, grape-type fruits in about 60 days from transplanting. Petite plants grow to be only about 16 to 24 inches tall, making them another good container vegetable. Small but mighty, they are said to resist late blight and produce up to 350 fruits per plant!
∎ “Mama Mia Giallo,” an Italian sweet pepper that bears 7- to 9-inch-long, golden yellow fruits in 85 days. It is also said to be a good container plant. Do you detect a theme here? Growing vegetables in containers continues to be a popular trend.
∎ “Chef’s Choice Orange tomato, a plant bred from the heirloom “Amana Orange” to make it earlier, more productive, and disease resistant – all good things in any heirloom tomato. It is an indeterminate, which makes it harder to grow in a container, and it bears large, 1-pound, orange-red fruits in 75 days. Hopefully the flavor was not bred out of it.
The national flower winners are:
∎ “Serenita Pink” angelonia, a plant that has spikes of deep pink flowers with dark centers. Plants grow 10 to 12 inches tall and 8 to 10 inches wide, are drought resistant and are not attractive to deer or rabbits. Called summer snapdragon, it is easy to grow and blooms all summer long in full sun.
∎ “Florific Sweet Orange” New Guinea impatiens, which bear large, 2-inch, bi-colored peach and tangerine blossoms that contrast nicely with its glossy, dark green leaves. Branching plants grow to be 10 to 14 inches tall and wide. Unlike regular impatiens, these do best in full sun and are not susceptible to downy mildew.
∎ “African Sunset” petunias, which form mounds of bright orange blossoms on plants that are 12 inches tall and spread 18 inches wide.
∎ “Akila Daisy White” osteospermum, a plant that prefers cool moist weather but will bloom into summer and once established will tolerate dry conditions. Bushy plants grow about a foot high and wide and bear loads of 2-inch, pure white, daisy-like flowers with yellow centers. It likes full sun.
∎ “Sparkle White” gaura, which bears white flowers tinged with pink on 1- to 2-foot-tall stems. Sometimes called bee-blossom because it attracts pollinators, the flowers sway with the breeze like butterflies.
There are three AAS display gardens in New Hampshire. One is at Cole Gardens on Loudon Road in Concord, another is at Prescott Park on Marcy Street in Portsmouth, and the last is at the Meredith Public Library.
The library’s garden won third prize from AAS for its design in 2013! Visit any of these gardens this summer to see the award-winning plants in action.
In addition to AAS there are other groups who pick a plant of the year.
The International Herb Association has named artemisia as Herb of the Year. A large plant family, it includes edible tarragon, bug-repelling wormwood and ornamental “Silver King,” valued for its dusty gray foliage. Visit the website iherb.org to see what’s up next for herbs of the year through 2020.
The American Hosta Growers’ Hosta of the Year is “Abiqua Drinking Gourd,” a 22-inch-tall by 46-inch-wide plant with interesting cup-shaped, blue, seer-suckered leaves. Hardy to Zone 3, it tolerates dry shade or wet locations and has good slug resistance. Locally, Black Forest Nursery in Boscawen, which has an extensive selection of hostas, carries it.
My personal pick for plant of the year is clematis “Sweet Summer Love.” Imagine a purple sweet autumn clematis that blooms in July! I can’t wait to plant one! I hope it doesn’t disappoint.