I've been gardening and writing about gardening for more than 20 years, yet I find I'm always learning new things about the plants, insects and other critters that call my backyard home. That's the great thing about gardening — it's never boring! I've worked as a landscaper, on an organic farm, as a research technician in a plant pathology lab and ran a small cut-flower business, all of which inform my garden writing. Someone once asked me when I'll be finished with my gardens, to which I replied, "Never!" For me, gardening is a process, not a goal.
Jack Frost brunnera has been named the 2012 Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association. (Photo: perennialresource.com)
Black Olive ornamental pepper (Photo: All-America Selections)
The announcement of award-winning plants might not generate the buzz of the Academy Awards — at least not among the general public. But if you're a gardener who likes to stay on top of the latest and greatest, then perusing plant awards offers a glimpse into what to expect at garden centers this spring. If you're a new gardener, the sheer number of plants to choose from can be overwhelming, and browsing award winners can help you narrow down your options. So if your version of style is more salvia and sedum than taffeta and tulle, spend a chilly January afternoon checking out what's hot on the horticultural red carpet.
Dozens of horticultural organizations offer awards for outstanding plants, and each has its own criteria. Some grant awards to new varieties; others select only plants that have a track record of merit. Some organizations are region-specific and recognize plants that thrive in a particular climate; others are national or even international in scope. Keep in mind that winning an award doesn't guarantee that a plant will thrive in your garden. Take the time to learn about each plant's attributes and cultural requirements (sun, soil, moisture) to see if it's a good match for your conditions.
Here's a rundown of some of the most popular awards programs; award-winners for 2012 are listed at right.
Since 1932, All-America Selections (AAS) has been testing new seed varieties in trials conducted under a range of growing conditions across North America. New introductions are planted alongside the most similar plants on the market to see how they measure up. Pains are taken to mimic conditions in the home garden. The plants aren't coddled, and the organization uses volunteer evaluators to ensure unbiased results. Each year, AAS deems a handful of best-performing varieties worthy of designation as an All-America Selection.
Learn more: All-America Selections
This professional trade group includes growers, retailers, landscape designers and other horticultural professionals. Each year, the group chooses a Perennial Plant of the Year, based on several criteria. For example, the plant must thrive in a wide range of climates and growing conditions, require relatively little maintenance and be attractive in multiple seasons. Each year, members of the association nominate hundreds of plants and winnow the list to one winner.
Learn more: Perennial Plant Association.
A program of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the Gold Medal Plant Award program recognizes outstanding trees, shrubs and woody vines. Plants are evaluated and chosen for their appearance, performance, pest and disease resistance, ease of growing, and hardiness in USDA Zones 5 to 7 (although most of the winners thrive in a much broader geographic range).
Learn more: Gold Medal Plants
An international trade group of the ornamental plants industry, Fleuroselect tests and promotes new flower varieties, and also acts as a watchdog for illegal propagation of patent-protected varieties. Fleuroselect conducts field and greenhouse trials of new varieties submitted by members across Europe. The Fleuroselect Gold Medal is awarded to varieties that are deemed superior.
Learn more: Fleuroselect
The National Garden Bureau has declared 2012 the Year of the Heuchera. In addition, it has named 2012 the Year of the Geranium and the Year of the Herb. (Photo: National Garden Bureau)
Founded in 1920, this nonprofit trade group promotes gardening by educating and inspiring consumers. They do this through various media outlets and by supplying retailers with marketing materials that help consumers be successful gardeners. Each year, the organization announces its "Year of the..." program. There's usually one annual flower and one edible plant; they recently added a perennial to the list.
Learn more: National Garden Bureau
These organizations highlight one or more outstanding varieties in a particular plant category:
These organizations focus on plants that thrive in a particular region or climate and are often some of the best resources for help in choosing suitable plants.
Like most gardeners, I have favorite varieties that I grow every year, but I'm not immune to the allure of new and different plants — whether or not they win any awards. What will the best-dressed gardens wear this season? I'll be watching. But one thing's for sure: I'll be dressed the same old T-shirts and garden clogs I wore last year...
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