Gardening is the most popular outdoor activity in the United States. People everywhere in the country are growing lawns, flower beds, vegetable gardens and container gardens. And gardening is big business. Each year, people are out looking for the best of the varieties.
Look at any seed rack, sporting packet upon packet of different seeds and the confusion grows. Which variety is best? You are going to spend the same amount of money on fertilizer and water and time weeding, watering and tending a poor variety as a good one, so why not grow the best? In the 1920s and ‘30s gardening was more than a hobby, it was a way of life, yet people knew little about new varieties of plants. In that period, breeders were developing new garden plant varieties, but there was no way to determine which varieties were actually better than the old ones except to try them out. Gardeners could waste an entire season on a mediocre plant variety.
In 1932, W. Ray Hastings, president of the Southern Seedsmen’s Association of Atlanta, suggested that an organized approach would benefit everyone. He dubbed his idea All-America Selections (AAS) and encouraged seed companies to set up trial gardens across the country to test and evaluate new varieties. The companies adopted the idea and agreed to develop marketing efforts to make the best new varieties readily available.
The plan placed trial gardens in a variety of garden conditions through varied North American climates and the resulting plants were assessed by skilled, impartial judges. The organization did not cover old ground — it tested only new, previously unsold varieties.
That has been the basis ever since the first AAS winners were announced in 1933 and the organization has announced new winners each year since. In 1934, AAS introduced 30 new varieties — a record that has not been matched since.
Gold Medal winners
In 1984, the AAS Board of Directors simplified the system. They now recognize varieties of flowers and vegetables that are superior to all others of their type. They created an AAS Gold Medal Award for plants that represent a breeding breakthrough. The competition gets stiffer and stiffer as each year’s winners must be significantly superior to plants that won in years past. The Gold Medal Award is rare. Only one or two plants merit that attention in a decade. There is no set number of “positions” for winners. If only one or two plants merit the award in a year, AAS only awards one or two. If a dozen are superb, AAS makes a dozen awards.
AAS continues as the oldest, most established international testing organization in North America. The All-American Selections purpose is to test new, unsold cultivars, inform gardeners about the winners through magazines and newspaper interest and to earn gardener’s trust in those winners.
AAS does no marketing of their selections. They depend on the news media to pick up the information and pass it along.
The following flowers and vegetables were tested in 2004 and are ready to market this year — the 2005 Gold Medal Award winners. Although all winners perform well across the country, the first two are particularly well adapted to Tooele conditions.
Gardeners in Tooele County have reason to take a special interest in the Gaillardia aristata ‘Arizona Sun’ flower award winner. Gaillardias, or blanket flowers, are particularly well adapted to our climate and bloom well here. ‘Arizona Sun,’ which earned its name from its similarity to the desert sun in Arizona, is an improved variety offering three-inch red and yellow blooms. The flowers produce continuously and the spent flowers form tufts of seed that add to the look of the plant.
‘Arizona Sun’ loves full sun, and when grown in sun it is compact. It fills a 10 to 12 inch space growing 8 to 10 inches tall. Gaillardia aristata is native to the Great Plains and may be a perennial in our area providing our winters are mild. Grown from seed, it has proven to be an exceptional plant even the first year. An extra bonus is that it may attract butterflies to the garden.
Vincas, or Catharanthus rosea, are widely grown and have proven themselves in our area. For years, breeders have tried to develop a true blue variety. ‘First Kiss Blueberry,’ which has won the AAS flower award for 2005, is the first blueflowered vinca. At two inches, the single blooms are larger than other vincas and they have a darker “eye” in the center that accentuates their violet coloring.
These plants are heat and drought tolerant and, given good growing conditions, they will fill a 16-inch space in the garden growing about 11 inches tall. ‘First Kiss Blueberry’ adds its lovely color to container gardens.
Every gardener is familiar with zinnias. This year’s winner, Zinnia F1 ‘Magellan Coral’ develops a profusion of bright coral, fully double blooms. They produce flowers early and continue through the season. Sow them from seed, and you can expect flowers in six to nine weeks. They love full sun. Growing 15 to 17 inches tall and spreading 15 to 19 inches, these plants will adapt to container gardens or flowerbeds and they require little maintenance.
The first of three vegetable winners this year is eggplant ‘Fairy Tale,’ the first eggplant to win the AAS award since 1939. Bigger is not always better and Fairy Tale proves it. As a small plant with decorative miniature white eggplants with purple stripes, it can be an addition to a decorative garden, but it offers more than good looks. The fruits are sweet, non-bitter with tender skin and few seeds. Pick them while they are small (1-2 ounces) and enjoy them, or leave them on the plant to grow twice that size. You will still enjoy a sweet flavor and tender skin. They are perfect for marinating and summer grilling. You will not wait all summer to enjoy them as they reach a harvestable age 49-51 days after transplanting. The plant grows only 2 1/2 feet tall and fills the same space in the garden so if you are working for a patio planting, these are the perfect choice.
Winter squash make a delightful winter vegetable, but they tend to require a lot of garden space to sprawl in. Winter Squash F1 ‘Bonbon’ (Cucurbita maxima) is an exception to that rule. It grows into an upright, semi-bush form and mature vines spread about eight feet. (Some varieties could take up to 20 square feet of garden space.) They should produce plenty of ripe fruits in our relatively short growing season since they produce ripe fruit a full week earlier than similar squashes. Look for the first ripe fruit within 81 days after planting. Cut open the squash to find thick, orange flesh that is consistently sweet (hence the name Bonbon.) The small, dark green squash is silver striped and grows to about four pounds. This plant is easy to grow, is not highly susceptible to diseases and will adapt to the same locations as any other plant.
Tomatoes are always coming out with new varieties, but Tomato F1 ‘Sugary’ Vegetable Award winner has topped its class. It is aptly named — the judges consistently raved about the sweet tomato flavor it delivers. The taste buds are not the only indicator — the fruit carries a sugar content of 9.5 percent — which is higher than most others have. The dark pink fruits are small — each weighing about 1/2 ounce — and they grow in clusters like grapes making them easy to harvest. ‘Sugary’ tomatoes are oval with a pointed blossom end. They produce abundantly and resist cracking. You can plan to enjoy these tasty tidbits about 60 days from transplanting into warm, prepared soil or put them in large containers. The semi-indeterminate vines grow vigorously and may need pruning to keep them within bounds. These new varieties should set a new standard for cherry tomatoes.