As the seed catalogs pile up on my nightstand, the choices become overwhelming. It’s hard enough to choose which flowers and veggies to grow this coming year. But then there are page after page of cultivars to choose from.
This isn’t a new problem. As is true today, the 1930s was a time when plant breeders were creating a lot of “improved” flower and vegetable cultivars. Were they really better than the old standards? With all the new choices, how could home gardeners know which were the best?
Enter All-America Selections. Founded by Ray Hastings, All-America Selections (AAS) is an independent, non-profit organization that trials new varieties in 80 test sites across America. Judges score the results, and those varieties that score high enough are awarded the coveted All-America Selection seal.
When you see that seal next to a catalog offering, it indicates that variety “has been ‘Tested Nationally & Proven Locally’ so it will perform well in your garden.”
There are multiple winners every year from among the four categories: flowers/ornamentals grown from seed, flowers/ornamentals grown from vegetative cuttings, vegetables/edibles from seed, and herbaceous perennials. You may recognize the names cultivars that have won in the past, as many are still being offered by numerous seed companies. Sugar Snap peas won a gold medal in 1979, and the improved variety Sugar Ann was a 1984 winner. Tithonia ‘Torch’ (at top) won in 1951, Rudbeckia ‘Prairie Sun’ was a 2003 AAS winner, and the Wave® series of petunias includes a number of selections as well.
This year’s winners include seven tomatoes (Apple Yellow, Buffalo sun, Celano, Chef’s Choice Bicolor, Crokini, Early Resilience, and Galahad) with an assortment of desirable features; a flattened blue-gray pumpkin with contrasting orange flesh (‘Blue Prince’); a watermelon (‘Mambo’) for those of us with short, cool summers;, a seedless cucumber (‘Green Light’); and four ornamentals.
While I’m interested in trying all of these, I simply don’t have room, so I’m choosing the cucumber to start with. ‘Green Light’ is small (3 to 4 inches long) but with higher and earlier yields than its competitors. Judges also thought it tasted better. The hybrid is parthenocarpic, meaning that all the flowers are female but don’t need to be pollinated in order to mature into fruit, which is seedless. Parthenocarpic varieties are ideal for growing in a greenhouse. This variety may induce me to attempt growing cucumbers again, as I could tuck them under covers to protect them from our cool summer nights and frequent hail.
I now realize that the bright maroon-red coleus I saw growing in Denver last summer was the 2020 AAS winner Coleus ‘Main Street Beale Street.’ It was in a bed filled with other similarly intense colors; the impact was stunning. (The yellow rudbeckia planted next to the coleus is a little dark to be ‘American Gold Rush,’ another of this year’s selections—I wish there were signs.)
Echinacea ‘Sombrero® Baja Burgundy’ (a gorgeous glowing red coneflower) and Nasturtium ‘Tip Top Rose’ round out the ornamental winners’ circle.
Gardening under extreme conditions, I’m always skeptical of claims that a specific cultivar will do well for me. Yet, those AAS selections I’ve tried in the past, such 1980 winner ‘Gold Rush’ zucchini (its yellow color makes it much harder to miss when harvesting) and 1984’s Celebrity Tomato, have surpassed my expectations. That makes me eager to try new winners as they come along.
Even better, there are several AAS demonstration gardens along Colorado’s Front Range, so I can check out both flowers and edibles before I commit limited garden space to them. I particularly enjoy the Denver Botanic Garden’s yearly display, HAS Demo Garden in downtown Colorado Springs, Hudson Gardens in Littleton, and CSU’s demo gardens in Ft. Collins (annual flowers only, shown below).
The next time you’re shopping for seeds or seedlings, look for the AAS symbol. It’s one more way to have this year’s garden be your best ever.