It’s a new garden season, thus a great time to try new plants.

The advantages of new plants are that their developers think they’ve improved on existing varieties, plus buyers get a chance to be on the cutting edge. The disadvantage is that the new plants may fail to live up to the description in the promotional material.

My wife, Nancy, and I have fallen for the lure of the “new and improved” several times. Sometimes the experience has been a fruitful one, sometimes not.

Coreopsis is a superb perennial, which blooms for a long time and doesn’t take much care. It is usually yellow, but when Limerock Ruby coreopsis came out several years ago, it was touted as a reliable Zone 5 red coreopsis. Nancy planted it two years in a row. Each time, it failed to survive the winter. After the first year, she thought she had done something wrong and tried again. No luck. Its producer now lists it as a Zone 7 plant — meaning it requires much warmer temperatures than we have in Maine. Nancy could have told him that.

Another failure for us was the ‘Pink Lemonade’ blueberry. When they came out in 2011, I bought three of the plants from three different nurseries — sort of as a joke. Can you still call it a blueberry if it produces pink berries, I wondered. In the three years since, my plants have produced very few berries. And those few we do get have never made it to pink ripeness. Not even close. Apparently, something thinks they taste good when they are still green.

It’s not all bad news. We have had successes with new introductions. Stella de Oro daylily was introduced in 1975, the year we had our house built, and Nancy wanted the low-growing rebloomer because her grandmother’s name was Stella. That plant still thrives in our garden, and the variety has been a major commercial success, too.


New plants are developed — or discovered — every year. Sometimes a nursery owner is walking along her garden rows and discovers a shorter, more compact version of an existing plant — hence Echinacea “Kim’s Knee high,” a shorter coneflower. Or perhaps a nursery decides that what gardeners really need — even if they don’t yet know it — is a pink blueberry or a white marigold or… and they set out to produce those plants. There are always a few bumps on the road, but some new plants do stay on the market. Why? Because they please gardeners.

So here are a few recommendations for this year’s crop of new plants from local nursery professionals. Give them a try if you want to experiment — but it might be safer to wait a couple of years to see how they work out.

WHO: Jeff O’Donal of O’Donal’s Nursery in Gorham.

WHAT HE’S EXCITED ABOUT: Azalea abrorescens and red Harry Lauder walking stick.

TELL US ABOUT THE AZALEA: “There is a pretty special azalea abrorescens — ‘Hot Ginger and Dynamite.’ I like the name. I like the plant, and I like the bloom form,” O’Donal said. “It is a hybrid of the ones that are native to the Southeast, but it will grow perfectly well here.”

SO WHY THE HARRY LAUDER WALKING STICK: For its drooping curved red foliage and the look of the plant in winter, when snow and ice flatter the twisted branches.


WHAT HE’S SKEPTICAL OF: The Bloomathon Azalea series (pictured at left). It comes in red, lavender, pink and white, and is supposed to bloom twice — once in the spring and again in the summer. It’s officially Zone 6, which means it’s suited to just a few areas in coastal Maine. O’Donal is buying it in part to prove something to himself, namely can it really and truly survive Maine’s long, cold winters?


WHO: Elaine Bouchard of Skillins, with nurseries in Falmouth, Brunswick and Cumberland.

WHAT’S CAUGHT HER EYE: Heucherella “Solar Eclipse,” for one. It’s a new variety of a fairly new species (heucherella is a hybrid of heuchera and tiarella). It grows well in both gardens and in containers, and — with its scalloped dark maroon foliage and attractive edge of lime green — it’s a dramatic-looking plant. Plant Heucherella “Solar Eclipse” in partial shade, she said, and enjoy its color throughout the season.

BEE AND BUTTERFLY MAGNETS: The insects like Eupatorium “Baby Joe,” a dwarf version of Joe Pye weed with broad panicles (a pyramid-shaped flower cluster) of purple and mauve flowers. It works in large containers or in the garden and adds nice late-season color.

WE’D BUY THESE PERENNIAL HIBISCUSES FOR THE NAMES ALONE: “Sultry Kiss” (pictured at left) is a bright fuchsia red, with a very long bloom, and foliage that emerges as bronze and then turns the colors of a maple leaf — green with reddish stems. “Cherry Cheesecake” has a pink bud that opens to a white flower with a cherry red edge. It’s compact and well branched with a mounding habit (gardener-speak for a plant that sits half a globe above the ground) and blooms all along the stem. Both are late-blooming.



WHO: Claudia Risbara of Risbara’s Greenhouse in Portland.

A HIBISCUS OF A DIFFERENT STRIPE: This one, the Hibiscus “Mahogany Splendor,” is an annual from the tropics. The plant’s red flower blends into the dark purple foliage, a characteristic that serious gardeners usually consider a flaw. But it doesn’t deter Risbara. “Mahogany Splendor,” she says, is a striking-looking plant that keeps its good looks all year long.

ANOTHER LOOKER: Risbara also uses “striking” to describe the zea mays, a tall plant (up to 5 feet if planted in the ground) that resembles cornstalks, “which is why it is called maize but spelled differently,” Risbara explained. The leaves are creamy white with a pink tinge, and the zea mays makes a nice tall centerpiece if planted in a mixed container.

DON’T EAT THIS!: The ornamental white eggplant grows to 20 inches tall and sprouts little white inedible eggplants along the stem. Though it’s not useful for dinner, it is very beautiful, Risbara said.



WHO: Jim Masse of Estabrook’s in Yarmouth.

WHAT’S TICKLED HIS FANCY: Grafted tomatoes. “They take a great-tasting tomato or old heirloom that doesn’t perform well in our climate,” he said, “and they graft it onto a root stock that helps the plant be more vigorous. What you get is a tomato that has beautiful taste and is a lot more productive.”

ADVICE FOR GARDENERS: Plant ungrafted tomatoes deeply, but if you try grafted tomatoes, plant them at the same level that the plant sits at in the pot.

PICK OF THE LITTER: Masse likes the Black Krim, Cherokee Purple and San Marzano (pictured at left). But he adds that Estabrook’s will carry some 10 varieties of grafted tomatoes.


WHO: Lauren St. Germain of Longfellow’s Greenhouses in Manchester.


NEVER TOO MUCH CHERRY CHEESECAKE: St. Germain likes a petunia in the Crazytunia series that is also named “Cherry Cheesecake.” It’s white with red stripes radiating from the center. The black and yellow “Star Jubilee” is also a petunia and also on her short list.

TWO PERENNIAL FAVORITES: Echinacea “Secret Affair,” a deep and fragrant fuchsia with a pompom blossom, and Coreopsis solana “Golden Sphere,” which has beautiful double golden blossoms that start at the end of June and last all summer.

Maine Greenhouse and Nursery Day

Maine Greenhouse and Nursery Day is this coming Saturday. This is the fifth year that independently owned garden centers across Maine have scheduled programs and specials in honor of the day, which celebrates the joys of gardening in Maine. For more information, go to and click on the Maine Nursery and Greenhouse Day button. According to the website, some 25 garden centers are participating.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. Contact him at 767-2297 or at:

[email protected]

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