The impassioned excitement that surrounds the Super Bowl, the Grammys and the Academy Awards can be an elixir in these dreary days of winter, elevating our spirits until we can get back out into the garden.
But did you know that several organizations offer awards to the best plants of the year? Some promote only new varieties, while others award plants of outstanding merit, new or not. The lists are helpful and can narrow down your plant choices if you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the options, especially if you’re a new gardener. May I have the envelope, please:
• The Perennial Plant Association chooses one perennial as its annual Perennial Plant of the Year. To be considered, a plant must be suited to a wide range of climates, low maintenance, easily propagated and exhibit multiple seasons of interest. I haven’t tried the 2014 winner yet, a switchgrass called Northwind, but I’m a big fan of its close relatives, Ruby Ribbons and Heavy Metal.
Place switchgrasses where they can get backlighting from a sunrise or sunset and prepare yourself for something amazing: The tiny rice-shaped panicles making up the flower become illuminated and absolutely shimmer, as though they were metallic. It’s a breathtaking effect you simply must see to believe.
If you garden in an area of Yakima County where tall plants are vulnerable to blustery winds, take heart: Northwind was selected in part because it remains solidly upright in the most extreme weather conditions.
Looking over this list, I can’t imagine gardening without most of these dependable, familiar faces. They are not like so many of those rare and expensive plants you buy that, once you get them planted, become even rarer by disappearing altogether. These are plants you can live with, and vice versa.
When Karl Foerster won in 2001, it marked the first inclusion of an ornamental grass on a list that had previously named only flowering perennials. Grasses won again in 2009. How could we garden without them? Most of the winners offer stellar foliage that anchors and embellishes the garden long after the more fleeting blooms have faded.
The awards began in 1990. Here are some of the most recent winners: Here’s a list of the winners since 1990, the year they started the awards. If you’re searching for something relatively new, but a proven winner, you will find it here.
• 2014 Panicum virgatum Northwind, switchgrass
• 2013 Polygonatum variegatum, variegated Solomon’s Seal
• 2012 Brunnera macrophylla, Jack Frost, Siberian bugloss
• 2011 Amsonia hubrichtii, Threadleaf bluestar
• 2010 Baptisia australis, blue false indigo
• 2009 Hakonechloa macra, Aureola, Japanese forest grass
• 2008 Geranium himalayense x Geranium wallichianum Rozanne, hardy geranium
• 2007 Nepeta x faassenii, Walker’s Low, catmint
• 2006 Dianthus gratianopolitanus Feuerhexe, cheddar pink firewitch
• 2005 Helleborus x hybridus, hybrid hellebore
• 2004 Athyrium niponicum Pictum, Japanese painted fern ‘Pictum’
• 2003 Leucanthemum x superbum, Becky, shasta daisy
• 2002 Phlox paniculata Davidii, Phlox David
• 2001 Calamagrostis x acutiflora, Karl Foerster, feather reed grass
• 2000 Scabiosa, Butterfly Blue, pincushion flower
• 1999 Rudbeckia fulgida, Goldsturm, black-eyed Susan
• 1998 Echinacea purpurea, Magnus, purple cone flower
• 1997 Salvia x sylvestris, May Night, salvia May Night
• 1996 Penstemon digitalis, Husker’s Red, penstemon
• 1995 Perovskia atriplicifolia, Russian sage
• 1994 Astilbe simplicifolia, Sprite, false spirea
• 1993 Veronica spicata, Sunny Border Blue, speedwell
•1992 Coreopsis verticillata, Moonbeam, threadleaf coreopsis
• 1991 Heuchera micrantha var. diversifolia, Palace Purple, coral bells
• 1990 Phlox stolonifera, creeping phlox
• All-America Selections Awards are for outstanding new garden seed introductions. After extensive field trials across the county, AAS judges selected the following 2014 winners based on novel fruit quality, foliage, flower colors and pest and disease tolerance. Many vegetable gardeners are growing in small spaces, raised beds or containers, where space is a premium, and several of the winners are more compact versions of garden staples. Here are the winners in the seed category.
• Tomato, Fantastico F1 is a determinate, high yielding grape tomato that resists fruit cracking compared to other varieties. It’s early maturing, late blight tolerant tomato and is best suited for hanging baskets, container plantings and small space gardens.
• Tomato, Chef’s Choice Orange F1 is a firm, full-flavored beefsteak hybrid with parentage characteristics of heirloom Amana Orange. Even when it’s cooked, it retains its bright orange color. Matures 75 days after transplant and can grow up to 5 feet tall.
• Pepper, Mama Mia Giallo F1 is a sweet Italian pepper with shiny yellow tapered fruit, 7 to 9 inches long, that matures 85 days after transplant. Bushy and compact plant (24 inches tall), this pepper is suited to small space gardens.
• Bean, Mascotte is a crunchy, compact bushy bean with great flavor and an abundant yield. Its dense but shallow roots allow it to thrive in containers, raised bed gardens and other small space settings. It matures 50 days after seeding and is also resistant to bean mosaic virus, anthracnose, and pseudomonas diseases.
• Petunia, African Sunset F1 is a hybrid petunia that is perfect for container and hanging basket plantings. Its prolific bloom with bright orange colors can reach 12 inches tall and spreads to about 20 inches.
• Gaura, Sparkle White is a perennial that produces large numbers of white flowers on a slender stem. Native to Texas and Louisiana, a breeding breakthrough produced a plant that blooms sooner and longer than the native, and with better branching. It needs full to part sun.
• But wait, there’s more. Each year, the National Garden Bureau selects three plants — an annual, a perennial and an edible — to be featured throughout the year in their promotions. The organization has proclaimed 2014 as the year of the petunia, echinacea and cucumber. In selecting the petunia, the organization touts, “They are low maintenance and drought tolerant, available nationwide, are a great value, sport a variety of forms and colors, and some even exhibit a light fragrance.”
According to the bureau, “Echinacea (purple coneflower) was chosen as the perennial because of the vast array of flower colors and forms available to today’s gardener but also because they are an American native. The cucumber is one of the top five most popular garden vegetables, are widely adaptable and have even been grown in space.”
This year’s award-winning Herb of the Year from the International Herb Association is artemisia, a diverse family that includes not only culinary tarragon, but sagebrush and a wide variety of ornamental garden plants. Many of these offer beautiful silvery foliage, making them valuable for their color and texture, and they thrive in hot, dry weather and poor soil.
The American Hosta Growers Association has chosen Abiqua Drinking Gourd as its 2014 Hosta of the Year. A massive specimen, at maturity its huge blue-green leaves are densely seersuckered, corrugated and cupped to form a large bowl, giving it its name. To be considered for the win, a hosta must be widely available at a retail price of about $15, and be a proven good grower in all regions of the country.And lastly, have you ever wondered what the world’s favorite rose is? When 100,000 members of the World Federation of Rose Societies voted, they named ‘Graham Thomas,’ an English Rose bred by David Austin, who named it for his good friend. This is a stunning, can’t live-without-it, buff-yellow beauty. A heavy bloomer with tremendous disease resistance, it’s perfect for larger gardens, since it wants to grow up to be a climber.
• Carol Barany and her husband, John, found paradise on 1 1/3 acres just west of Franklin Park, where they raised three children and became Master Gardeners. Email Carol Barany at email@example.com.