Garden games – It’s the Olympics for flowers and veggies |

Garden games – It’s the Olympics for flowers and veggies

OK, it’s a little bit of a stretch calling it that, but the winners have been announced in the annual All-America Selections contest.

In this competition, horticultural newcomers are placed in 35 AAS test gardens throughout the nation (one as close to us as Woodland), plus six in Canada, where they’re grown side-by-side with the current champions to see how they compare.

Judging of these newcomers is done by teams of unpaid, independent individuals.

Some years only a handful make the grade, but this year there are three flowers and three vegetables which will be making an appearance in garden centers and seed catalogs next spring.

A flower I find particularly appealing is the appropriately named Gaillardia aristata, or “Arizona Sun.” Each 3-inch single flower is mahogany red with bright yellow trim on the edges.

“When grown in full sun,” the AAS press release reads, “Arizona Sun is a compact plant reaching only 8 to 10 inches tall and spreading to about 10 to 12 inches. They may attract butterflies to the garden in search of nectar.”

“Blanket flower,” as gaillardia is also known, is usually considered a perennial. Arizona Sun performed as an exceptional plant in the first year when grown from seed.

“First Kiss Blueberry” is the romantic name given to the next winner, a blue-flowered vinca. Known botanically as Catharanthus rosea, this 11-inch tall beauty with 2-inch blue, dark-eyed flowers shrugs off heat and drought, spreading to 16 inches.

The result of years of cross-breeding to get a blue flower, this beauty shines in containers.

Zinnias are a sentimental favorite of mine because I remember finding a packet of zinnia seed while my older stepbrother and I were on the way home from school in West Nyack, N.Y.

“Let’s plant them and see what happens!” Jim said. We did, and then forgot them until proper sun and regular rains produced an abundance of beautiful flowers next to the front steps.

That’s why I’ll keep an eye out for Zinnia F1 “Magellan Coral.” The ” F1″ designation means this is a hybrid and it’s a waste of time saving seeds because they’ll only produce a rag-tag assortment of not-so-handsome relatives.

You’ll find brilliantly colored fully double blooms 5 to 6 inches across on plants, which won high marks for consistent flower production, early blooming (only six to nine weeks from sowing seed) and being virtually maintenance free. They grow to 17 inches tall and will spread 15 to 19 inches in full sun.

As a child, eggplant was my least favorite vegetable. When mom unloaded the groceries and I saw those yucky things in the bag I broke into a cold sweat. Those were the days when children were told, “You’ll eat everything on your plate. There are children starving in Europe!”

Happily, maturity brought an appreciation for aubergine (French for “eggplant”) and we’ll probably look into adding eggplant F1 “Fairy Tale” to our spring garden. These white beauties with purple stripes are miniatures produced on plants that usually reach 2 and a half feet tall.

“The elongated oval eggplants can be picked when quite small at 1-2 ounces or left on the plant until double the weight,” the AAS press release claims, “and the flavor and tenderness remain.”

Harvesting begins in about 50 days from transplanting. No eggplant has won an AAS award since 1939 (maybe I’m not the only one who had an aversion to them?) which lends evidence this is a truly exceptional new variety.

When Felicia harvests fruit from our cherry tomato plant she puts them in a basket near the kitchen door and I pop them in my mouth like candy. So, I’m looking forward to adding tomato F1 “Sugary” to the raised beds next year.

AAS judges raved about the sweet tomato flavor (with a sugar content of 9.5 percent) of these oval, pointed fruits of the vine, which grow in clusters like grapes – can be eaten like them.

You’ll have fruit within 60 days of transplanting from containers, and keep in mind the vigorous plants may need some pruning to encourage growth.

Three things brought winter squash F1 “Bonbon” into the 2005 winner’s circle: Restricted habit, earliness and superior taste. Bonbon has an upright semi-bush habit that needs less garden space (usually spreading to 8 feet) than other squash and when cooked it has a sweet flavor and creamy texture packed with Vitamin A.

This boxy shaped dark green squash has silver stripes and typically weighs about 4 pounds. It’s easy to grow and disease resistant.

And if you’re wondering about AAS, its mission is simple: “To promote new garden seed varieties with superior garden performance judged in impartial trials in North America.” To learn more, check out their web page at


Dick Tracy is an award-winning garden writer and photographer, a trained master gardener and former president of the Foothills Horticulture Society. You can write him in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.

Master Gardeners Open House

The UCCE Nevada County Master Gardeners is offering a Community Open House on Sept. 18. Following is the schedule:

9 a.m. to noon: One-on-one consultations with a Master Gardener. Some ideas of what you can learn are:

– how to select plants for your yard

– how to maintain backyard fruit trees

– how to use resource-efficient landscaping

– how to plant in an oak habitat

Things to bring:

– questions about your landscape problems

– plants you want us to identify

– insect pests or damage (in a plastic bag, please)

Or, you can:

– tour our garden and have some refreshments

– sample our tomatoes and vote for your favorite

Master Gardeners will be available to answer your gardening questions. Free University of California publications will also be available.

Demonstration Garden, 1036 W. Main St., Grass Valley (on NID Grounds) – this location is wheelchair accessible. RAIN or SHINE event.

We have indoor facilities. Please contact our office at (530) 273-4563, 72 hours in advance of any event, to request accommodations for persons with disabilities.

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