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New plants on the block

Nurseries and seed companies unveil improved varieties of everything

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 2000



The most beautiful, productive gardens are cultivated in January - in our dreams.

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That's when gardeners, huddled in sweaters and wool socks, leaf through a dizzying array of seed catalogs - from those that offer only the most up-to-date hybrids to ones specializing in seeds that your grandparents probably grew (see page 14).

Much more than a mere laundry list of plants, garden catalogs are filled with photographs of fabulous flowers and glorious gardens, accompanied by such beguiling descriptions that you want to order one of everything.

This is the year, catalogs seem to promise, that your garden will be picture-perfect: Flea beetles will leave your eggplant alone and that scraggly row of zinnias will be transformed into a mildewless carpet of color.

As we shiver and turn up the thermostat, we recognize the realities of gardening - that an overabundance of rainfall may drown young salad greens or drought might shrivel succulent hostas.

But it doesn't matter. Under the influence of exciting new plants, we are certain that this year our garden will be just like those in the catalogs.

And maybe, thanks to a palette of new plants, it really will.

We asked experts to discuss what's happening in gardening this year. They also describe what they consider the outstanding new annuals, perennials, vegetables, roses, and shrubs for 2000, the ones they think will be successes in your yard - wherever you live.

All-America winners

To ensure that plants that win the coveted All-America Selections (AAS) award will thrive in all climates, they are grown in numerous independent locations in the US and Canada for at least two years, says Nona Koivula, AAS director. And they're judged against the current top sellers in their categories.

Five flowers and four vegetables triumphed for 2000. The annuals "are heat-tolerant and quite adaptable to soil types and climates across North America," says Ms. Koivula, who adds that the judges commented on the excellent flavor of all the vegetables.

I grew all but one of the winners last year. My hands-down favorites - and this held true for many other testers I talked to - were Savoy Express cabbage, Soraya sunflower, and Cosmic Orange cosmos.

Savoy has the qualities gardeners look for in cabbage - sweet taste and early maturity. Perfect for slaw, Savoy is a crinkled cabbage that takes up little space in the garden and is ready to harvest in only 55 days from transplanting.

Cosmos has always deserved a place in the sunny flower border because of its bountiful blooms and no-fuss attitude. But Cosmic Orange, which reaches no more than 12 inches high, stands out because it's also a perfect container plant.

At the other end of the size spectrum, Soraya sunflower may top 5 feet and will be constantly covered with tangerine-colored flowers, instead of the traditional yellow. Its long, branched stems make this an excellent cut flower.

Mr. Big green pea is high-yielding, easy to shell, and has a delicious flavor, although the two- to three-feet plants do need some staking. Warm-climate gardeners need to get this pea planted early since it doesn't perform well in heat.

Torrid temperatures won't faze Fiesta Del Sol tithonia (dwarf Mexican sunflower) and Stardust Orchid vinca, which is the first annual vinca (Catharanthus roseus) with orchid and white blooms.

Gardeners can save money by growing colorful varieties of bell peppers instead of paying steep prices for them at the supermarket.

Blushing Beauty, an AAS winner, produces peppers that change hues as they mature - from yellow-ivory to pink to red. And it has the added advantage of being an ideal container plant.

Shrubs

Tim Wood of Spring Meadow Nursery in Michigan says that homeowners are turning away from plain-Jane evergreens in favor of shrubs that flower or have colorful foliage. They're also, he says, looking for shrubs that do double-duty - bloom in spring and produce colorful leaves or fruit in fall, or flower in summer and show off interesting bark during winter.