And the envelope please …

Actors have the Oscars, college football has the Heisman Trophy. At this time of year, organizations from the garden industry also name their winners.

As with the Oscars, some of the prizes are for lifetime achievement: The Perennial Plant of the Year and Cary Award are for established plants that have proven their worth over the long haul.

All-America Selections, which date back to 1933, are more like rookie-of-the-year awards. They are plants being introduced in 2015 but tested earlier in about 80 gardens – run by seed companies, universities, botanical gardens and even Walt Disney World – all across the United States and Canada. Two of the test gardens are in Maine, both managed by Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Albion.

What do plant awards mean to the average Maine gardener? Mostly, they give gardeners something new to try. But remember, just because a plant wins an award doesn’t automatically mean you will like it. You don’t like every Oscar-winning movie or Grammy-winning song, do you?

As an example, in 2013 Johnny’s Selected Seeds won an All-America award for its cherry tomato Jasper, mostly for its disease resistance and because the fruit did not crack as it ripened. Nancy and I grew it successfully but preferred the taste of other cherry tomatoes we’ve grown.

Catalogs mention when plants have won awards, so if you are weighing several varieties you can give the award-winner an edge.


The Perennial Plant Association – a board made up of national plant producers – has been naming its Perennial Plant of the Year since 1990. This is akin to football team owners voting on the league’s best players. The winner for 2015 is Geranium x cantabrigiense “Biokovo,” a low-growing perennial, often used as a ground cover or in rock gardens.

Although serious flower gardeners already know this, the perennial geranium is not the plant most Americans think of as a geranium. That one is a tropical – used as an annual in the north – with the botanical name Pelargonium. People plant it at cemeteries and in window boxes.

Hardy geraniums, also called cranesbills, are a stand-by in perennial beds because they require little maintenance, and they bloom for a long time. While some cranesbills are native to North America, “Biokovo” is not; it comes from Croatia.

“It’s a great plant, really underused,” Tom Estabrook of Estabrook’s Gardens and Greenhouse in Yarmouth said when I called him. “It’s a great ground-cover plant with wonderful light pink flowers. It spreads like a carpet over time and helps hold down weeds.”

Nancy and I have grown “Biokovo” in the past, but its small, very pale pink blossoms didn’t suit us. Other geraniums to consider include “Rozanne,” which is taller, blue and a past winner of Perennial of the Year; “New Hampshire Purple,” which has a deeper color and larger flowers; and other colors of Geranium sanguineum.


Winners of the 2015 Cary Award, given by Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts, are Japanese clethra, Clethra barbinervis, and Red Obelisk beech, Fagus sylvatica “Red Obelisk.” The Cary Award recognizes woody plants – trees, shrubs and vines – that do well in New England, are interesting in multiple seasons and are considered underused by the nursery industry.

“Japanese clethra is more of a small tree than a shrub,” said Jeff O’Donal of O’Donal’s Nursery in Gorham; he serves on the Cary Award selection committee. “It does sucker up at the base, but I prefer them with a single stem, grown as a tree form.”

The foliage turns gold, orange or scarlet in the fall, he said, and the tree has exfoliating bark as it ages, which makes it interesting to look at in the winter. Although it is rated as Zone 5, which includes mostly coastal Maine, O’Donal says he has grown it for years on his Zone 4 property, and his customers give it raves when it is in bloom.

The red-leaved beech is a plant O’Donal compares to an exclamation point – it grows tall (50 feet or more) and thin (4 to 5 feet wide), so when it reaches its full height, everyone will notice it. In the spring, the shiny leaves emerge a brilliant red and later turn a deep maroon. Take note: The leaves do not emerge until mid to late May, when all the plants around it have already greened up, sometimes leading less experienced gardeners to think it is dead.


All-American Selections has 11 national winners, which were tested and highly rated in gardens in the United States and Canada, and two that excelled in the Northeast and similar climates. Of those 13 total, nine are food plants, although some have ornamental value, and four are flowers. I’ve never grown any of these, but a few sound like problem solvers.

For the first time, two of the winners – Sandy lettuce and Gherkin cucumber Parisian – are available as organic seed. And one winner, the Butterscotch Butternut Squash (the name itself is tempting), was developed by Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Still, only three of the winners jumped out as plants that I want to try in my own garden, though the two alternatives to Impatiens walleriana, which is killed by impatiens downy mildew, should be helpful to many gardeners.

The Roxanne radish remains firm, solid and flavorful even when oversized, meaning the gardener waited too long to pick them. I usually harvest radishes only when we have company, so they often get too big; for this reason, Roxanne is one I will try. Squash Bossa Nova, a zucchini, has a mottled exterior, making it easy to spot. My eyesight isn’t what it used to be, so I often miss the young, tender zucchini and get, to my dismay, inedible baseball-bat sized specimens. I’ll try this one, too.

Pak Choi Bopak just sounds interesting and useful, and I’ve never grown pak choi before.

Your choices are likely to be entirely different.

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

[email protected]

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