Next Wednesday night, March 25th, IS a big deal. My friend and Garden Spot predecessor, Diane Sagers, will be the featured guest speaker at the monthly USU Master Gardeners free public presentation. Not only will Diane be sharing her insights on strawberry choices and growing methods for the Tooele area, but she’ll be unveiling several of the latest round of All-America Selections (AAS) award winners.
In case you don’t know it, many of the great garden varieties you enjoy in your garden were at one time AAS top choices. For instance, it’s highly likely that you’ve planted and enjoyed a Celebrity tomato or two. Yep, you guessed it. AAS winner. Celebrity was the top tomato award winner in 1984.
In fact, All-America Selections has been in existence since 1933! You can visit their home page (all-americaselections.org), and readily download a spreadsheet of all the winners since their inception to present day. Some of the varieties listed are obscure, several are not, especially as it gets closer and closer to present day.
Even if you are not familiar with the flowers, bedding plants and vegetables listed, just reading the names of winning plants evokes all kinds of positive imagery. Names like Zowie! Yellow Flame, Lady in Red, Bonanza Bolero, and Cinderella’s Carriage are just plain fun! Names are created by the growers and developers of the varieties, not by AAS. And, if you guessed that Cinderella’s Carriage is a variety of pumpkin, then you’ve got a well-developed sense of gardening intuition.
AAS is a highly positive force in the world of home gardening here in the United States, as well as other gardening-minded countries. The organization’s stated purpose is threefold: to test new, unsold cultivars; to inform gardeners about the AAS winners, and, to earn gardeners’ trust in the AAS winners. Dovetailed into their purpose, their stated mission is, “To promote new garden varieties with superior garden performance judged in impartial trials in North America”.
The impartiality of the choices is encouraged and maintained both through their organizational structure and how trials and results are tallied. All-America Selections is an independent, non-profit organization. There is a wide diversity of horticultural companies, trial locations, and judges to assure the integrity of the process.
It’s easy to see why growers take placement in the AAS ranking very seriously. Because the selection process is quite strenuous, and to place in final rankings is quite an accomplishment plus winning an award can lead to wide distribution and resulting royalties. That’s beneficial for both the seed developers, as well as us gardeners that get to enjoy great new varieties that have been chosen for very desirable characteristics.
What types of characteristics are the highest value in the selection process? First of all, judges will look for significant improvements from what has been previously available in a wide range of traits. This can include early blooming or faster harvest, resistance or tolerance to diseases and/or common pests for a type of plant. That’s not all. Exceptional traits such as flower shapes, unusual colors or flavors, and productivity are all considered. Of course, overall performance is taken into account as well. Judges will not consider a plant variety for an AAS award unless the entry has at least two significantly improved qualities than what is already readily available.
As you might imagine, selecting the winners is not done by taking the seed developer’s word for it. Nope. There is a vigorous testing process done for entries, held in a wide variety of geographies, to assure that traits are measurable and verifiable. Trial grounds are located in a diverse array of locations in both the United States and Canada. Judges are professional horticulturists who work their field. The test plot could be at a university, commercial seed breeding station, public garden, or agricultural location such as a large greenhouse or high tunnel operation. Plants under evaluation are planted next to other well-known and predictable varieties. These serve as controls to gauge influences that would affect all plantings, not just the one being evaluated. For instance, if there was severe pest damage in both the evaluation and the control planting, or both plantings suffered a common problem with irrigation or fertilization, then the trait would not be ascribed to the trial entry only.
Scoring is numeric; a rating of one is the lowest, five is the highest. As mentioned earlier, a wide range of characteristics are evaluated. Only entries with the highest average score compiled from the various trial gardens are even considered for an award. It’s important to note that only new, never-before-sold entries, with well documented superior qualities, could possibly be an AAS winner.
The approach of utilizing trial gardens in a wide range of places helps assure that varieties will flourish in a variety of environments, and that growing ranges are accurately noted. This approach shows up in the organization’s tagline, “Tested Nationally and Proven Locally®.”
One of the things that I like about All-America Selections is the diversity of industry interests that are represented both on the Board, and at the Trial Grounds and Judges level as well. They are competitors that know working well together leads to a better result overall. This isn’t as foreign a concept as it may sound right off. The National Football League is a group of competing teams that take football and winning very seriously. However, the NFL is a very large collaboration that benefits owners, players, fans, stadium owners, merchandisers, advertisers, and cities that have a team. You can compete and collaborate. The same holds true for airlines. If they don’t work with each other’s schedules, and allow baggage to be transferred between carriers, they wouldn’t flourish. You get the idea. Such as it is with AAS. Having several people competing that know what they are doing, as well as assuring that all interests are represented, allows for impartial and informed judging. We, the gardeners, are richer for it.
So, I hope you’ll put it on your calendar to come hear Diane Sagers share her knowledge about strawberries and AAS winners this next Wednesday night, March 25, from 7-8 p.m. It’ll be held at the USU Extension Office at 151 N. Main, across from the Big 5 Sports store. Diane knows what she’s talking about and any time you can go to an event like this, offered free, it’s a bargain that can’t be beat.
Besides, being around a great group of gardeners is a real spirit lifter, and we can all use regular doses of that!
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.