Because of variables such as erratic weather and fickle pests, growing a beautiful garden is always a bit of a gamble. Want to tip the odds in your favor? Choose plants that have performed so well they've won awards--and not from mere beauty pageants, either. Although different award programs, from the venerable All-America Selections to trials by horticultural societies, have varying rules and procedures, they share a common goal of helping gardeners find reliably high-performing plants.
The Smartest Seeds
If your gardening year starts with sowing seeds, the first list to look at is All-America Selections (AAS), a 68-year-old program that evaluates and promotes annual flowers and vegetables. AAS casts a big net to find the best of the best. Breeders enter their most promising varieties, which are test-grown at 47 trial locations across the United States and Canada.
Top contenders are judged on flower power and trouble tolerance, with extra credit for unique features or fragrance. Once the winners are picked, seed producers have a couple of years to accumulate enough seed to meet the expected demand. Then, a few months before the winning list goes public, AAS gives in to pleas from writers such as myself and lets us try out the next year's winners in our gardens. So my report of the winners is tempered with first-hand experience.
The 2000 AAS flower I like best is 'Melody Pink' dianthus, a 2-foot giant that stood up to last summer's heat and drought better than the most spirited zinnia. It has no fragrance but is a great upright flower for a sunny spot.
To appreciate the other flowers on this year's AAS list, think orange. Cosmos sulphureus 'Cosmic Orange' is much less rangy than others of the species, and it produces scads of blooms all summer if it gets a little water once in a while. Tithonia rotundifolia 'Fiesta Del Sol' takes the old-fashioned torch flower (also called Mexican sunflower) to new lows, topping out at a manageable 3 feet instead of 6. For a backdrop, look no further than 5- to 6-foot 'Soraya' sunflower (Helianthus annuus), a tangerine bloomer that brings a new hue to the sunflower patch.
Here's a hint for balancing all that orange: think blue as in floss flower (Ageratum houstonianum), butterfly bush, (Buddleia davidii), or mealy-cup sage (Salvia farinacea).
If you'd rather buy your annuals as bedding plants, AAS winners will be in nurseries, too. 'Stardust Orchid' vinca (Catharanthus roseus) is a true ace for any warm, sunny bed. For shade, one 1999 winner was picoteed 'Pin-Up Flame' begonia.
To discover more champion bedding plants, check to see if your state's cooperative extension service conducts field trials. Although these trials are low-key compared to the big awards programs, dozens of far-flung experiment stations grow a variety of bedding flowers, usually in partnership with university horticulturists. The trial results are passed on to growers, garden centers, and home gardeners.
Some state programs give awards to high-performing annuals. If you need cold-tolerant flowers, six out of seven Exceptional Performance winners in last year's winter field trials at North Carolina State University (USDA Hardiness Zone 7) were hybrids of Johnny-jump-up (Viola tricolor), also known as minipansies. 'Penny Azure Wings', 'Sorbet Yellow Delight', and 'Splendid Blue & Yellow' bloomed longer and stronger than other pansies when grown in the fall-to-spring season.
Like most award programs, the Georgia Gold Medal program tries to strike a balance between helping gardeners find superior plants and making sure nurseries can supply them. Field trial performance is important, but so is the likelihood that gardeners will be able to buy plenty of these high-quality plants.
One look at the list of this year's Georgia Gold Medal winners, and you know you've landed in the land of technicolor leaves. Medals went to four coleus: 'Amazon', 'Purple Ducksfoot', 'Red Ruffles' (also known as 'New Orleans Red', a 1996 Louisiana Select winner), and 'Solar Flare'.
There is no secret to success with perennials -- simply find plants that like your soil and climate. National organizations such as the Perennial Plant Association (PPA) give awards to perennials that flourish in a wide range of soils and climates, while state programs recognize plants that show superior adaptation close to home.
One of the great things about the PPA program is that, except for rare "new" plants like 'Blue Spire' Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) honored in 1995, it gives prime perennials a well-deserved push to make sure everyone knows their value. This year, its top honors go to 'Butterfly Blue' pincushion flower (Scabiosa columbaria), a venerable variety that requires only a smidgen of extra lime where acid soil prevails to make itself at home in many climates. PPA's picks from the last three years read like a dream garden: 'Magnus' purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Rudbeckia fulgida sullivantii 'Goldsturm', and Salvia superba 'May Night'.
The South is rich territory for state-sponsored plant prizes. Jerry Parsons, a Texas horticultural extension specialist based in San Antonio, proclaims that the Texas SuperStars program started it all 10 years ago. This year's SuperStar picks -- three huge hybrid hibiscus that represent a brilliant marriage of drought and cold tolerance with Texas-sized flowers -- are stars indeed: 'Flare Rose' is a bushy bearer of fuchsia red flowers, 'Lord Baltimore' is 5 feet tall with red flowers, and 'Moy Grande' produces deep pink blooms; flowers on the first two are 10 inches across, on the third up to a foot across. All are steady rebloomers hardy to zone 5.
This year's Georgia Gold Medal winners feature two outstanding perennial phlox (P. paniculata): white 'David' and pink 'Robert Poore'. Both have a light spicy fragrance, especially in the evening, but their greatest asset is high resistance to powdery mildew.
For dry-climate perennials, look to the Plant Select program run by Denver Botanic Gardens and Colorado State University. The 2000 Plant Select winners include 'Coral Canyon' twinspur (Diascia integerrima), a South African wildflower that responds to moderate watering by producing clouds of soft pink flowers all summer; and Penstemon grandiflorus 'Prairie Jewel', a perennial with giant flowers ranging from pure white to deep purple. This plant requires dry soil.
Wonderful Woody Plants
The worth of a long-lived shrub or tree cannot be decided overnight. It might take 10 years to appraise a shrub, up to 50 years for a tree. Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) and various state programs are not afraid of this challenge. Colorado's Plant Select program is spotlighting two low-water-use shrubs: 'Pawnee Buttes' sand cherry (Prunus besseyi) and 'Spanish Gold' broom (Cytisus purgans). Oakleaf hydrangeas (H. quercifolia) including 'Pink Diamond' (2000 Arkansas Select) and 'Alice' (2000 Georgia Gold) are big winners for the South and East.
I'm always excited to learn of a shrub that does a lot of different things. A great example is 'Brilliantissima' red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), a PHS 2000 Gold Medal winner. This multistemmed deciduous shrub grows into a 6- to 8-foot-tall upright clump and shows plump red buds in late winter, white flowers in spring, lustrous green leaves through summer, bright red foliage in fall, and red berries that persist through winter until the birds eat them. It's adapted from zones 4 through 9 and is recommended for mass planting, but a trio of these with a skirt of bluebeard (Caryopteris clandonensis) around their bases could be just the thing to anchor a neglected corner of my yard.
If you are entranced by birches and other trees with peeling bark, visit an arboretum that has aPersian parrotia (P. persica), also known as Persian ironwood. This PHS gold winner has been around long enough to have reached its full 30- to 40-foot height in botanical gardens and arboretums from New England to California. The Missouri Botanical Garden reports, "Persian parrotia's showiest feature is the colorful flaking bark on its sinewy trunk and branches."
The venerable white oak is on this year's PHS list. I already have one, so I'm taking a tip from the Georgia Gold and Mississippi Medallion programs and making 'Little Gem' magnolia my millenium tree.
People's Plant Awards
Several plant societies give awards to outstanding plants, while others publish lists of members' favorite varieties. Look for top picks at these Web sites:
All-America Rose Selections
American Hemerocallis Society winners
American Iris Society most popular irises
American Rose Society members' favorite roses
Hosta of the Year and other hosta information
Other plant and gardening organizations
Not all of the winners listed in this article have made it to the Web, but these links give detailed descriptions of many competitive programs.
Colorado State University, Best Annuals for 1999
Louisiana Select Plants, 1996-99
Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Gold Medal Awards 1993-99
North Carolina State University Annuals Trials
Plants Promoted in Southeastern United States, 1996-2000 (combined list)
As spring warms up, save a spot in the sun for summer-loving flowers that are grown from cuttings rather than seed. This dynamic duo begins with a butterfly magnet that deer find unappetizing: 'New Gold' lantana (Arkansas Select 2000, Louisiana Select 1998, Georgia Gold 1995). 'New Gold' looks great in the company of the biggest winner of them all: Scaevola 'Blue Wonder', also called fan flower, which has won more medals than a 6-inch pot can hold: Georgia Gold, Louisiana Select, and Mississippi Medallion (1997); Texas SuperStar (1998); and Arkansas Select (1999).
Barbara Pleasant is a National Gardening regional reporter, for the Middle South. She lives in Lexington, Alabama.
Photography by All-American Selections