New plants on the block

Nurseries and seed companies unveil improved varieties of everything

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

Low-maintenance is in demand with busy families. This means hybridizers are developing shrubs that are free from insects and diseases and have a compact shape that requires less trimming. Because of the continuing popularity of perennial flowers, shrubs that fit into the perennial border are gaining ground.

Mr. Wood also sees a return to shrubs whose branches can be cut to use in floral arrangements. He recommends three new shrubs that are part of those trends.

Itea virginica Little Henry (sweetspire) is a compact shrub with showy, sweet-smelling flowers that appear on the tips of graceful arching stems in June. In autumn, the leaves turn brilliant scarlet and stay on the plant until early December. In my garden, it's right at home along the edge of the perennial border.

Physocarpus opulifolious Diabolo (purple ninebark) is the first ninebark to have deep burgundy-black foliage. It blooms in July, with white, button-like blossoms that seem to jump out in contrast to the dark glossy foliage. It has few pest problems and is adaptable to most soils.

Weigela florida Wine & Roses is also simple to grow, as long as you place it in full sun. Named a Gold Medal Winner by the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society for 2000, it combines dark burgundy foliage with masses of romantic pink spring blooms that attract hummingbirds by the score.

Horticulturists at several Southern botanical gardens are growing and recommending Encore azaleas, broad-leaved

evergreens that flower in fall as well as spring.

Roses

Americans are looking for easy-care rosebushes that don't develop black spot or mildew, and that produce an abundance of fragrant, good-looking flowers all summer, say observers of the horticulture scene. Three that fit that description were named All-America Rose Selections (AARS) winners for 2000. When I grew this trio of roses last summer, my favorite was Knock Out, a shrub rose that represents another trend in roses - the old-fashioned look. The almost fluorescent-red blooms are single and complemented by richly hued foliage with a hint of burgundy. Traditionalists will enjoy the blooms' light fragrance, while gardeners with little time will appreciate Knock Out's exceptional pest-resistance.

My second favorite was Gemini, a hybrid tea with cream and deep-coral blooms that are real head-turners. Their sparkling personality attracted the immediate attention of visitors to my garden. Everyone oohed and aahed.

The legions of gardeners who think the perfect rose is big and bright red will be impressed by the four-inch blooms on Crimson Bouquet, a grandiflora rose with such brilliant scarlet flowers that they often looked like they were on fire. This rose's looks were matched by its performance - it was trouble-free in my garden, even when stressed by drought.

Fans of Flower Carpet roses can look for a velvety-red variety this spring to join the pink, white, and apple blossom colors previously introduced.

Red Flower Carpet is a prolific bloomer that cascades over the ground and is ideal for mass plantings.

Perennials

Ruth Baumgardner, president-elect of the Perennial Plant Association, says that gardeners will see an increasing number of perennials with what she calls "interesting" foliage.

Cascade Dawn heuchera, for instance, has purple leaves with gray veining. And a new viola called Syletta boasts silvery foliage veined with deep green and blushed with purple undertones.

Ms. Baumgardner's favorite new perennial is Japanese aster (Pinnatidida Hortensis).

"It blooms for more than 12 weeks in sun or part shade, if it's kept watered," she says with enthusiasm.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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