New Plants for Gardening, Part 1

Today’s Grow gardening section in the Denver Post features an article I wrote on some of the great new plants for 2012. I thought this would be a good time to reprint an article I wrote in 2006 that explains how new plants find their way into our flowerbeds each year. Here’s part 1 of New Plants for Gardening, originally published in the Denver Post. Please watch for part 2 next week.

Each spring gardeners walk into their neighborhood garden centers and ask the question every adventurous gardener wants to know: “What’s new?”

They usually go home with new annuals and perennials and somehow find room to plant them in already-full flowerbeds. New plant introductions are what keeps things interesting in the garden.

The answer to what’s new? helps drive the country’s multi-billion dollar ornamental horticulture industry. Every year gardeners scour mail order catalogs and visit far-flung nurseries searching for exciting new plants.

“There’s a tremendous interest among the gardening public now. We’re catching up to the European’s fervor for special plants,” says Kelly Grummons, owner and chief horticulturist at Timberline Gardens in Arvada, Colo. “Gardeners are less pragmatic now. It’s more about feeding the plant frenzy. They have to have what’s hot and new.”

Helping to fuel the frenzy is the growing number of slick gardening magazines, home and garden television programs, and creative marketing campaigns. Martha Stewart made gardening fashionable, Grummons says.

Local gardening gurus, like Lauren Springer Ogden and Rob Proctor, are also partly to blame. “People get excited after hearing them lecture and they want to buy everything they’ve heard about.”

Hundreds of new seeds and plants are introduced into the green industry every year. With every catalog and garden center touting amazing new additions, a gardener has to wonder, is any plant really new?

“All plants have some genetic relative to everything on earth,” says Al Gerace, CEO of Welby Gardens, grower of Hardy Boy bedding plants. “So far we haven’t found any plant material on the moon.”

Many new plants are hybrids of established lines that offer bolder colors, improved disease resistance, or greater hardiness. One new plant, the Calitunia, combines the best qualities of the calibrachoa and petunia. “This cross is totally new to the marketplace,” Gerace says. “It’s beautiful and holds up to multiple climates.”

New plants might simply be a superior variety of a plant that’s been available for years. Even old favorites, like Majestic pansies and Big Boy tomatoes, have undergone improvements.

Some new plants may be a species never seen before. Intrepid plant hunters continue to travel to remote areas of the globe seeking plants to bring back for propagation.

“The pressure for new plants is intense and it’s coming from everywhere,” says Brian Corr, product group director for new crops at Ball Horticultural Company. “What’s new? is the first question the consumer asks at the garden center, the garden center asks the supplier, the supplier asks the company owner, and the company owner asks the plant breeder.”

Like the latest fashion trend or ultra-high-tech gadget, the horticulture industry needs to continue to evolve and make meaningful changes. “We’re constantly improving plants, like the weird and wonderful Angelonia. We now have colors that didn’t exist in the past,” says Corr.

Although the basics of plant breeding are fairly clear-cut, getting a successful result can take years of experimenting and testing. Most seed and plant companies won’t introduce their new cultivars into the marketplace unless they perform well at multiple garden trial sites.

The trialing process helps prevent a potential plant disaster for the grower who thinks his new perennial will thrive in Zone 4 when in reality it grows best in Zone 8.

Ball conducts plant trials at its own test sites, at trial sites around the country—and the world, and in collaboration with universities, like the University of Minnesota and Colorado State University.

(Stay tuned for New Plants for Gardening, part 2, next week.)


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