Stars of the show: Gardeners can't go wrong with All America selections
One of the joys of Diane Blazek's job is walking through the All America Selections trial gardens. The AAS executive director was strolling through a field of ornamental peppers when she was struck by 'Onyx Red.'
"It made me stop and look," she says. "It was so vibrant, the leaves are so black, and the fruits are so red — definitely a stunning plant."
Every year, a new group of plants win the title of All America Selections, a prestigious honor that's hard to achieve. The group is a nonprofit that has 30 to 40 experienced growers across the country who judge new varieties against similar plants.
One good example is 'Jasper,' a tomato winner from 2013 that showed improvement over the 1999 winner, 'Juliet.' The former has been a staple in gardens since its introduction. The plant produces two-ounce, oblong fruits prolifically. 'Jasper' is now the standard as its higher yielding with sweeter fruit.
Photo from All America Selections
The volunteer judges never know the name of what they are growing. They know it's a tomato or zinnia, but their job is to evaluate it against the other variety.
"To become an AAS winner, it must perform better than what it was grown against," Blazek says.
The competing cultivars are listed on the organization's website. Since the seeds and plants are trialed anonymously, the process is transparent, meaning that since 1932 gardeners have been able to trust the results and know that these plants are superior to what they are judged against. Another interesting twist is that AAS never knows how many varieties will be judged. They rely solely on breeders to send their best cultivars.
This year's winners
• An annual baby's breath, gypsophila 'Gypsy White Improved,' beat out 'Gypsy Compact White.' The improved variety has beautiful semi double white flowers and is bigger than its competitor, making a mound of airy blooms.
• 'Red Racer' tomato is early and tasty, putting on lots of small, 3-ounce tomatoes. It was released last July and given to growers who reported the plant put lots of fruit on even with such a late start.
• Canna 'South Pacific Orange' is unique in that it is one of the only cannas that can be grown from seed and has an intense orange flower. "It's absolutely perfect for someone who really wants a tropical look," Blazek says. She adds that it's a very easy plant to start from seed. They should be sown inside under lights in March.
• Pak choi 'Asian Delight' has quite a buzz going on in the gardening community. Small Asian greens are all the rage. This heading Chinese cabbage is slow to bolt and has deep green leaves with white ribs.
• Habanero pepper 'Roulette' gives gardeners the unique flavor of habaneros without the pain. Enjoy the smoky taste with barely any heat.
'Mexican Sunset' Hungarian peppers
Photo from All America Selections
• Hungarian peppers 'Mexican Sunrise' and 'Mexican Sunset' churn out the fruit. They begin light green then eventually change to orange and then red. 'Sunset' is the high heat version and 'Sunrise' is milder.
• Corn 'American Dream' is a bicolor corn that is super sweet, tender and early, producing in 77 days. "We have not had a corn winner in 15 years," Blazek says, which means it should be something special.
• Marigold 'Super Hero Spry' holds its burgundy and orange flowers well above the foliage on compact (10-12 inch) plants.
Doug's favorite past winners
Let me preface this list with you can't go wrong with an All America Selections winner. These are just a few that I've fallen for.
Tithonia 'Torch' (1951): This Mexican sunflower is a pollinator magnet that reaches anywhere from 5 to 16 feet tall and is filled with 3-inch, deep orange flowers. It's easy to grow from seed and will last past frost. Couldn't imagine a garden without it. In all these years, nothing has challenged this winner.
Hot pepper 'Super Chile' (1988): This variety will put on tons of hot peppers under some of the worst conditions. It can grow just about anywhere. They are very hot, and I like to make hot pepper flakes out of them. Last year, four plants gave me enough peppers that even after dehydrating them I was giving away those flakes to friends.
Tomato 'Husky Gold' (1993): I first saw it growing at Janoski's Farm and Greenhouse. It's tough, reliable and tasty. What else can you ask from a tomato?
'Juliet' tomato (1999): I've always loved this one, but since Blazek alerted me to 'Jasper,' I guess I'll have to have my own little trial.
Cucumber 'Diva' (2002): A quick grower, prolific, resistant to cucumber beetles, doesn't need pollination, seedless and has sweet tender fruit. It's a real winner in my garden.
Echinacea 'Cheyenne Spirit' (2013): I first saw this blooming in the AAS display garden in Schenley Plaza. Coneflowers are tough and beautiful sun lovers, and this one has stunning red, orange and yellow blooms.
Impatiens Bounce Pink Flame PPAF 'Balboufink' (2015): This is the first impatiens I've ever grown that was bred for resistance to impatiens downy mildew.
SunPatiens 'Spreading Shell Pink' (2015): They take more sun, but are pretty happy in the shade and don't get downy impatiens mildew. It's an indestructible plant and great for containers. I love to grow them in consort with caladiums.
Doug Oster is editor of Everybody Gardens, a website operated by 535Media, LLC. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See other stories, videos, blogs, tips and more at everybodygardens.com.