Extension Educator, Horticulture
Headline from the Ground Hog Underground News; "Punxsutawney Phil is sick of winter; plans vacation in Florida". Even Phil is dreaming of gardens. One of my great joys this time of year is drooling over plant catalogs. I can revisit my favorite plant friends and salivate over tempting new plant acquaintances.
A great deal of toil and trouble goes in to getting new plants into those catalogs. The plants must survive the producer's quality check then on to independent growers for their critique. The Champaign County Master Gardeners, under the leadership of Master Gardener Ann Tice, trial new annuals offered by Proven Winners and Ball Seed Company at the Idea Garden in Urbana.
In the 2010 Champaign County Master Gardener trials the top winner was Graceful Grasses 'Vertigo' Pennisetum. The dramatic 2 to 3 inch wide burgundy leaves grow as a 3-foot tall arching fountain. It's a stunning back drop for late season asters and black-eyed Susans. A vigorous annual for sunny spots it thrives in the heat with no insect or disease problems. Thankfully it does not tolerate cold or we might have too much of this plant to love.
A close second was a stunner introduced last year, 'Snow Princess' alyssum. Described as an "alyssum on steroids" it is a summer blizzard of white delicate blooms all season on 3-foot wide plants.
In Chicago at the 2010 Illinois Turfgrass Foundation Field Day (Turf Expo) attendees selected their favorites in the University of Illinois Extension Annual Variety Trials. In a tie for the top were a tried and true zinnia 'Uproar Rose' and a 2010 introduction marigold 'Moonsong Deep Orange'.
These are not your grandma's zinnias and marigolds. 'Uproar Rose' zinnia is a showstopper at 3 feet tall and an explosion of electric magenta colored flowers all season with plenty of flowers to cut for vases. 'Moonsong Deep Orange' marigold has impressive Illini orange 2.5 to 3.5 inch wide flowers covering the 12 to 15 inch tall plants all season. New flowers tend to grow over and hide the older flowers for a neater appearance with very little dead heading.
All America Selections announced its flower winners for 2011. All America Selections (AAS), a not-for-profit organization of seed developers and producers, helps to entice gardeners to try new cultivars of flowers, vegetables and herbs. Winners are tested at trial gardens across North America including the Hartley Gardens at University of Illinois Arboretum. Each winner has superior qualities or traits that distinguish them from similar varieties in side by side trials.
In my estimation gaillardia in the garden is a sleeping teenager on the couch; lots of unrealized potential. Also known as blanket flower, gaillardia has showy daisy flowers with paddle-like petals and great drought resistance. With regular prodding gaillardia produces big and beautiful flowers, but left to fend for themselves the plants are floppy and in constant need of a haircut. This year's AAS winner 'Arizona Apricot' gaillardia offers a unique apricot color and a tidy 12-inch tall compact habit. The prolific 3 to 3.5 inch blooms have yellow edges that deepen to a rich apricot in the center and are produced from early summer into autumn. As a perennial in a sunny flower garden 'Arizona Apricot' gaillardia is relatively maintenance free once established; however removal of old flowers will encourage additional blooming.
I've always loved the hummingbird sage, Salvia coccinea. The bright red flowers are true to their name as hummingbirds and butterflies love them. This year's AAS winner 'Summer Jewel Red' salvia offers earlier flowering with intense red flower spikes continuing from spring to autumn on densely branched 20-inch tall plants. This showy annual is ideal for full sun containers and mixed annual and perennial flower borders.