The first All-America Selections for 2011, awarded to outstanding vegetables and flowers grown from seed, were announced this week.
To even get your genus and species into the running for this coveted award, your seeds and plants must undergo trials in both national and local test gardens. Each location hosts at least one official AAS judge who is a professional horticulturalist but unpaid, so all comments and decisions remain independent of outside influences.
Bedding plant evaluations focus on unique bloom and color, foliage, fragrance, bloom season, disease and pest resistance. Vegetables are judged for yield capacity, taste, quality, harvest time, storage ability, and disease and pest resistance.
Once crowned, the recipients earn a spot in the public display gardens around the country. Visit the AAS website at www.all-americaselections.org for a list of those and other sites throughout the country.
Up first is 'Arizona Apricot' blanket flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora), whose common names comes from its incredibly long bloom season. It basically begins flowering in early July and keeps on blooming until a hard frost.
A perennial, it's hardy from zones 2 through 10. But unlike so many perennials that are difficult to start from seed in the home garden, this variety of Gaillardia and any of its cousins are a snap to grow. You can either seed them directly into the garden or start them indoors in early spring; they bloom about 90 days from sowing.
A double 3-inch, daisy-like flower with yellow petals that look as if they've been painted apricot toward the center, the plant rises a stout 12 inches, keeping it from flopping and getting messy-looking come late summer. As with its cousins, keep it deadheaded to encourage buds rather than seed. As you deadhead, drop the flower head next to the plant and it will self-seed. It also makes an outstanding cut flower.
We talked about ornamental-flowering kale (Brassica oleracea) last fall, and look who makes the grade this year: 'Glamour Red.' Its unique shiny leaves set this variety apart from other ornamental kales. Give it a location that gets full sun for best color; you can start this one indoors or seed it directly in the garden. Remember, this is a member of the cole crops, like cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, so a cool soil temperature for sowing is welcome.
The plants have fringed leaves and a height of roughly 12 inches. The red begins to overtake the inner leaves once the evening temperatures begin to fall below 55 degrees. What's especially cool about this selection: A flowering kale has never garnered this award in the 78 years of the program, and it's edible.
To round out this week, 'Shangri-La Marina' F1 Viola cornuta. Its more common name is viola, but many may know it as the garden violet. Classified as a biennial, it will bloom the first year from seed in 70 days.
It is heralded not only for planting along the edge of the garden but also for hanging baskets, window boxes and container plantings. Crisp, clean plants keep a low mounded profile of about 6 inches in height. The pansy-like blossom sports china-blue petals, a rich dark blue face and yellow eye. Give this beauty a location in full sun where there is plenty of moisture come the heat of the summer, and it will bloom its little heart out straight through autumn.
It's said to rebound beautifully come spring. Allow it to continually set and drop seed for continuous plants year after year. Miniature vases filled with stems of 'Shangri-La Marina' make adorable place settings. The flowers themselves are edible and will add spectacular color to your salads. Try pressing a few between pages of your favorite book, then decoupage them onto a light-switch plate. It's not hard to see why just about every year the AAS folks deem a member of the viola family a worthy recipient.
Nancy O'Donnell owns Perennial Graphics Nursery in Schaghticoke, N.Y. Reach her at email@example.com .