Last week, for the third time in a row, I had the opportunity to judge the trial gardens at Costa Farms, near Homestead, Florida. At first blush, it seems an easy thing to do—just wander through bed after bed of beautiful flowers on a sunny Florida morning. But, in reality, it’s hard work, evaluating each plant on four important criteria: growth uniformity, foliage appeal, flower power/size, and consumer appeal. Fellow judges included Heather Will-Browne from Disney and Dr. Alan Armitage from the University of Georgia. Here are a few of my favorite picks (left to right, top to bottom) that you should watch for in your garden, this year or next.
As a lifelong gardener, I’ve always enjoyed growing new and different plants in my garden. That’s why I jumped at the chance to be one of the judges at the trial gardens of Costa Farms in Homestead, Florida. Last week, I spent a full day walking up and down their trial beds grading hundreds of new plant introductions. Judging categories included: growth/uniformity, foliage appeal, flower power/size, and consumer appeal. Plants in the trials included entries from all the big plant companies including Ball, Syngenta, Dummen, Sakata, Ecke, Proven Winners, Benary, Fafard, Gro Link and more. There were three other judges also hard at work in the Florida sun: Delilah Onofrey from Greenhouse Grower
The Trial Gardens of Costa Farms
magazine, Heather Will-Browne from Disney, and Jim Barrett from the Environmental Horticulture Department at the University of Florida. Each one of us was chosen because we could bring a particular point of view to the results. Some of my favorite newcomers included the Bandana series of lantana from Syngenta, ‘Wendy’s Wish’ salvia from Gro Link, ‘Sunbathers Gold Coast’ gazania from Ecke, the Arctic series of lobelia, the ‘Sweetunia Soft Pink Morning’ petunia, and the Empress series of verbena from Dummen, the ‘Shock Wave Coconut’ petunia and ‘Breathless White’ euphorbia from Ball, ‘Siam Moon’ and ‘Pink Heart’ caladiums from the Foremost Co., the Sunpatiens series of impatiens from Sakata, ‘Snow Princess’ alyssum and ‘Emerald Lace’ ornamental sweet potato from Proven Winners, and an assortment of new and exciting succulents from Costa Farms. And these are just the ones that stand out in my memory. Frankly, the majority of new plants we viewed performed well, so choosing the very best wasn’t too easy. Now, I can’t wait for them to show up at my local garden centers.
Strangler Fig in Costa Rica
Whenever my family and I travel, we always try to find a retreat where we can view plants and animals in their native habitats. This year, we decided to check out one of the wettest and one of the driest climates on the planet. First, we traveled to Carate, Costa Rica where we hiked through the jungle terrain of the Corcovado National Park. Located in the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica, this national park can receive almost 13 feet of rain per year. Besides the monkeys, scarlet macaws, and anteaters, we were able to view wild begonias, coconut palms, strangler figs and hundreds of other species. In Costa Rica’s warm, humid climate, there’s barely a crack or crevice that doesn’t have some type of plant life taking root. Check it out here.
Joshua Tree in California and me
On the other end of the eco-spectrum, we just returned from hiking the desert landscape of Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. Stradling the Colorado and Mojave deserts, the park only receives about 3 inches of rain per year. It gets its name from the iconic, tree-like Yucca brevifolia that dominate the landscape. The plants were given the name Joshua Tree, by early Mormon settlers who crossed the Mojave and thought the upward reaching branches reminded them of a Biblical story where Joshua reaches his arms up in prayer. For a desert plant, Joshua trees grow relatively quickly, often 3 inches per year. The foliage is spear-like and can be painful if you inadvertently walk into one as I did several times. Unlike Corcovado, the plant species at Joshua Tree were a lot more limited, but no less dramatic. Besides the Joshua Trees, you will also find creosote bush, ocotillo and cholla cactus. For more information check here.
Pussy Willow catkins
In late winter, I’m like an expectant father, pacing around my gardens looking for any signs of spring. Usually, by now, I’d be seeing some early bulb foliage poking through the soil or some green leaves unfurling in the perennial border. But this year it’s different. Deep snow still blankets the landscape. Winter has been relentless with snowstorms every few days adding new layers of fresh snow on top of drifts that are already chest high. All my garden beds are deeply buried, so unless the weather warms up quickly, we probably won’t be seeing our early bloomers such as hellebore, crocus or snowdrops until April or May. But, this weekend, I finally found some hope. In the back of the border, buried in 4 feet of snow, is a very large pussy willow shrub I planted several years ago. And, on the very top branches, the pussy willow catkins are beginning to peek out. It’s not much, but after one of the bleakest winters on record, it improved my spirits tremendously.
Surprisingly, you don’t read much about pussy willows anymore and the plants themselves can be difficult to find either via mail order or at the nursery. Certainly it doesn’t have large or fragrant flowers or interesting foliage, but in the early spring it earns its place in any landscape. It’s a blue collar shrub that works hard, has few pests, and requires only an annual pruning to keep it in bounds (un-pruned this shrub can grow 15 to 20 feet tall). Plus, you can cut the pussy willow branches and use them in fresh or dried arrangements. Pussy willows are also available in weeping forms or with pink or black catkins.
Garden books have played a huge role in my life. In fact, one of the first books I ever read cover to cover was my Grandmother’s 1946 edition of the Wise New Garden Encyclopedia. I think I was about 12 when I read her dog-eared 1,348 page volume. I pored over its line drawings and black and white photographs, memorizing the details of topics such as air layering, seed starting, dividing, landscaping, and so much more. My Grandmother, who was a superb gardener, kept it on a shelf near the back door in case she ever had to refer to it while she was in the garden. Fool that I was, I even tried to do a book report on it for school, but I quickly discovered that my friends thought it was an odd choice for reading material. Lucky for me, I had an older brother that most kids were afraid of so I didn’t have to suffer any physical criticisms of my book selection.
Years later when I was 25 years old, I landed a job at Better Homes and Gardens and was immediately assigned to work on the new edition of the Complete Guide to Gardening. Because I was the newbie, I was told I was responsible for the charts in the book. Little did I know that there were 140 pages of charts and, in an era when we were still working on manual typewriters, I had to do every page by hand using a ruler and pencil. I labored over these charts, outlining all the details of every genus and species, for almost 5 months. But in the end, I was proud of the work I did and even prouder that the title remained in print for over 20 years.
A Lifetime of Garden Books
Now, my life has come full circle. Better Homes and Gardens has a new book out called Gardening Made Easy. But, instead of me laboring over this volume, it was my wife Karen’s turn. She’s a garden freelancer and was hired by a different division of our company to edit and write this latest book in the Better Homes and Gardens gardening franchise. It’s a beautiful book and only available by mail order. I loved watching her labor over this project, but I was a bit jealous that she never once had to resort to a pencil and ruler.
By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, my garden looks like a 1930s black-and-white photo. That’s why I’m thrilled with the last beacons of color from the flowering kale that’s brighter now than when I planted it last spring. The leaves are a bit ragged around the edges (after all, we’ve had snow already!), and the plants are a little leggy, but the color is amazing: vivid pink and blue-green. A Technicolor touch in the monochromatic landscape.
Funny thing is, I’ve never been a fan of ornamental kale. They always seemed too gaudy and only appropriate for fall planting. Even when I found two plants, like stray kittens, sitting on a cart outside of my office last April with a sign saying “free plants,” I wasn’t tempted. Editor Luke Miller had used them as photo shoot props for a story in his magazine Garden Ideas and Outdoor Living. All day long people with spring on their minds passed by the small, orphaned kale. Finally as I was leaving for the day, I took pity on them, brought them home and poked them into an out-of-the-way corner in the garden.
As summer progressed, I turned a blind eye as cabbage looper caterpillars chewed lacy holes in their ruffled leaves. But somehow, the kale held their own. As summer turned to fall, and the rest of the garden faded from successive frosts, the kale got brighter, more vivid. And now those two orphaned kale are the last plants standing in my garden. And, I have to admit they are looking darn good.
So, I’ve made a note for next year’s planting list: plant kale in the spring for big fall color.
The orphan kales make good.