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May 29th, 2017

Gardening With Amanda: Award-Winning Annuals — Best of the Best?

By Amanda Legare
The best known award for new annual plants in the US is the All American Selections (AAS) program (http://all-americaselections.org). New flowers and vegetables are grown side-by-side with comparable available varieties and are evaluated by garden performance, size, taste, disease-resistance and any other characteristic important to the home gardener. Judges deem the performers that show clear superiority to their comparison as AAS winners. There were 16 AAS winners for 2017, including a red zinnia, a miniature watermelon, and a purple okra.

There was a time when I grew every new AAS winner each year. This stopped in 1992 when “Thumbelina Carrot” was designated an AAS vegetable. No way was I going to go to the trouble of germinating and weeding carrots to harvest a root “roughly the size of a golf ball” at the end of the season. New is not always better.

AAS was founded in 1932 and hundreds of plants have been designated winners. Very few of the early winners have had staying power. Most of those “new” prize-winning seeds are no longer available, demonstrating that they either did not live up to the judges’ expectations or they have been superseded by an improved variety.

Some remain stalwarts in many gardens today. Sensation cosmos was an AAS winner in 1936 and Early Prolific Yellow squash won in 1938. Red Sails lettuce won in 1985. Other previous AAS winners that I grow are Rocket snapdragons, Snowcrown cauliflower, Carmen peppers, the Profusion series of zinnias, certain petunias from the Wave series and Bright Lights chard. Two widely grown tomatoes that have received the AAS award are Celebrity (1984) and Big Beef (1994).

Seeds for two of my favorite AAS winners seem to have disappeared – Green Comet broccoli and Bonanza Bolero marigold. I assume this is because there are only a few vegetable seed companies left in the world and they are eliminating the older varieties in favor of new, “improved” hybrids.

Europe’s equivalent to the AAS is the Fleuroselect award (https://fleuroselect.com). These are flowers grown on trial grounds across Europe and “…proven to clearly supersede existing varieties in terms of breeding innovation and beauty.”

If a new plant wins both the AAS designation and the Fleuroselect “quality mark” I will definitely give it a go. This year one flower falls in that category—Profusion Red zinnia. (Profusion Cherry zinnia also won both awards in 1999). The Profusion series (and Zahara series) are shorter zinnias with tons of flowers and they are resistant to powdery mildew.

Others that have won both awards in the recent past include Fresh Look Red celosia and Tidal Wave Red Velour petunia, both good plants that I grow. The AAS program has recently added “ornamentals from vegetative cuttings.” These are plants that can not be grown from seed, only from cuttings of the same plant. Starting in 2019, there will also be an AAS award for herbaceous perennials.

While I study new award winning plants carefully, I also browse the reviews of plant performance in the many trial garden sites on the internet. Most of these plantings are sponsored by a university or a large wholesaler of plants. If one plant gets top scores from several northern trial gardens I am probably going to try it.

Like most gardeners, I have my favorite varieties that I grow every year and at the same time I am also easily tempted to try something new.

Amanda Sessel Legare operates Amanda’s Greenhouses and Perennials in Cabot, where she has field-dug perennials and four greenhouses. www.amandasgreenhouse.com

•This column previously appeared in Danville’s North Star Monthly.

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