JULIE FINUCANE

January is seed catalog season, with colorful mailings arriving almost daily, filled with tempting choices for our spring garden plans. While browsing, you’ll undoubtedly find them peppered with the familiar round AAS logo identify winners of the All-America Selections award.

This is one of the few award programs focused on the home gardener. Established in 1932, the goal was to provide gardening and farm publications and the budding garden club movement with reliable information on the best new garden seeds. The program was a great success, and over the years the award has become a trusted indicator of a good plant choice for the garden.

Each year companies submit their latest flower and vegetable varieties for consideration for the award. The contenders are grown in about 80 trial gardens distributed across North America, in 25 states and four Canadian provinces. The gardens themselves must meet some rather exacting criteria to qualify for trialing the plants, and we are fortunate to have three of these trial sites in Michigan, one in East Lansing on the Michigan State University campus, another in Lichtfield and a third near Grand Rapids.

Plants must be new and previously unavailable to gardeners and are evaluated for significant improvement over existing varieties of their type. For flowers, this includes novel flower forms or colors, flowers showing above the foliage, fragrance, length of flowering season, and pest and disease tolerance. For vegetables, earliness to harvest, total yield, fruit taste and fruit quality, ease of harvest, plant habit and disease or pest resistance.

Judges must be skilled and impartial and are qualified and trained by AAS to apply standard criteria when evaluating the plants. Judges are not paid for their participation and are typically horticultural professionals from academic and industry backgrounds. Each fall, scores are tallied, and awards announced to the horticultural press, cooperative extension agents and garden clubs, with no direct promotion from the AAS.

In 2015, AAS decided to recognize regional winners, too; plants that perform well in some areas, but are not strong enough everywhere to take a national award. Six geographic regions with similar climate conditions were established, and we are part of the Great Lakes region along with Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada. Winners for other regions may also be worth considering for our gardens, as they are still likely to be above average.

In addition to the working trial gardens, AAS encourages display gardens for plants where visitors can see the winners in action. Gardens may feature the edible or flower winners, or both, and can be found in 43 states, the District of Columbia and in seven Canadian provinces.

In Michigan, you’ll find them in Frankenmuth, Midland’s Dow Gardens, Tipton’s Hidden Lake Gardens, and near the trial gardens in East Lansing and Lichtfield.

The AAS supplies these gardens with seed or plants of current year winners and the winners from the previous four years. Gardens are required to provide an attractive setting, good presentation, and ensure that displays are well-labeled for visitors.

All-America Selections winners have stood the test of time. I am amazed at how many of the early winners are still available today, especially when the new winner must have been proven to perform better than existing options. From that first class of 1933 we still enjoy Honey Rock cantaloupe. Straight-8 cucumber was introduced in 1935, and Scarlet O’Hara morning glory in 1939. The year 1960 brought us the Rocket snapdragons, with six individual colors in the series each taking the prize, and all still commonly available in seed catalogs and garden centers. More recent winners include Purple Wave petunia (1995), Arizona Sun gaillardia (2005), Gretel eggplant (2009), and Midnight Snack tomato (2017).

Next week we’ll look at the winners for 2019.

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