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Trialed by Jury

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For the last couple of years I’ve been going around yammering about how the world doesn’t need another red petunia and how I wish the breeders would turn their attention to developing something we really need – like mangoes with smaller seeds. Now that I could use.

But I stand corrected. I’ve decided that I (and the rest of you) really do need this red petunia. Introduced by Ball Horticultural in West Chicago and new on the retail market this spring, the Easy Wave Red Velour petunia lives up to its name and puts out a summer-load of velvety rich red blooms whose petals have “depth” and draw you back for another look. It has siblings – Burgundy Velour and Berry Velour, which also stood up to the rigorous testing in Ball’s trial gardens. As with all Wave petunias, be faithful with the fertilizing. That prolific blooming needs nourishment. Red Velour is 12 inches tall, trailing to 24 inches in a container.

Red Velour Easy Wave is a superior plant. And so are the other plants described here. Jim Nau, garden manager at Ball Horticultural Company, is also the fellow who decides what to plant in Ball’s trial beds and evaluates the results. Last July, he shepherded me through the gardens, which were brimming with bloom and at their peak, thanks to last summer’s cool nights and frequent rain. So much better than the heat waves and droughts of previous years.

Everyone who has been mourning the disappearance of the common Impatiens walleriana from the garden center shelves will be thrilled to learn that replacements are being introduced by Ball. Named Bounce and Big Bounce, the new impatiens are interspecific hybrids that are not susceptible to the downy mildew that has been killing impatiens throughout the country. “These plants are very versatile,” says Nau. “They thrive in both sun and shade, in the garden as well as in baskets. They have a nice flower size and are more free-flowering than the New Guinea types, which are also resistant to the mildew.”

Nau recommends thorough watering immediately after the plants go in the ground and regular fertilizing after they have settled in. Bounce stands 14-20 inches high and spreads up to 12 inches wide, available in five colors. As the name indicates, Big Bounce is a larger plant that can soar 20 inches tall and spread 20-36 inches, available in six colors. More are surely on the horizon.

I never met a foxglove I didn’t like, so when I saw the unique coral-apricot blends of the flowers in Darwin Perennials’ new Foxlight series, I was thrilled. These bell-shaped flowers on 2-foot-tall stalks come in three colors: Foxlight ‘Plum Gold’, ‘Rose Ivory’ and ‘Ruby Glow’. While most foxgloves are biennials that bloom for a few weeks in early summer of their second year, the Foxlights are annuals that will bloom April through September. Don’t expect them to overwinter.

Tropical-looking cannas have enjoyed a resurgence of popularity recently as gardeners have come to realize that their oversized bronze, black and lime green leaves introduce valuable foliage contrast into the border and provide a hint of tropical splendor. What’s more, they bloom.

Cannas are usually propagated from cuttings (vegetatively), but with the Cannova cannas, the Japanese-based company Takii has developed the first canna grown from seed. They come in four colors: Cannova Rose, Yellow, Red Shades and Bronze Scarlet. (Cannova Rose is on this magazine’s cover.) The plants typically grow about 30 inches high, but if they’re well watered and fertilized a lot, they could soar up to 5 feet. “At Ball we grow them in a water garden, in containers and in the ground. The container plants are in 25-inch-diameter pots and they’re fed profusely to produce maximum bloom,” says Nau. If they’re in an aquatic garden, they will tend to be shorter simply because it’s harder to get out into a pond to fertilize them.

Ever since Dr. Jim Ault at the Chicago Botanic Garden bred the yellow coneflower ‘Art’s Pride’, (Echinacea ‘Art’s Pride’ Orange Meadowbrite), breeders have been playing catch-up developing new colors and forms. It is no longer your grandmother’s E. purpurea. Now we not only have more yellows but also orange, red and raspberry. The single-flowered Sombrero series of E. x hybrida is one of Nau’s personal favorites, largely because of its uniformity of habit. “There were 350 plants in one trial area last year, and the plants were all the same height – no rogues sticking up.” Sombrero Adobe Orange is new, and Sombrero Salsa Red, which came out earlier, is truly red. It held its rich, saturated color for a remarkably long time in my garden this year and the color didn’t start to fade until summer’s end. There are six hot colors in all.

And then there are the doubles with flowers that look as though they’re topped by a cluster of soft feathers. Also developed from E. x hybrida, the plants in the Double Scoop series seem to be just begging you to pat them on their fluffy heads. There are five colors, with Double Scoop Mandarin new this year. Plants in both series grow about 2 feet tall and are winter hardy to Zone 4, according to the breeder’s catalog. “I can testify to Zone 5,” says Nau. “In past years some double coneflowers didn’t make it through the winter, but this year we didn’t lose one plant among the hundreds that were tested. No doubt the snow cover helped.”

If you’re passionate about purple, you’re going to love the new EnduraScape verbenas whose colors include Blue, Purple, Dark Purple and Lavender, as well Hot Pink, Red and White. Five of these colors are new this season. Verbenas are annuals that tend to do better in containers than in the ground, and sometimes they can get mildew and reduce blooming during hot weather, notes Nau, but “these landscape verbenas are more vigorous.” They continue flowering over a wide temperature range, up to 100 F and down to the teens. The plants stay short (8-12 inches) but spread up to 24 inches and are very floriferous. Look at any of the purple shades and they almost seem to glow.

Coleus isn’t just for shade anymore. In fact, the Marquee Blonde Bombshell has a more interesting muted yellow color in sun than in shade, where it tends to turn a less exciting lime green. (Ball calls Blonde Bombshell and its kin, Marquee Red Carpet and Marquee Box Office Bronze, offspring of Coleus scutellariodes, although coleus has been changed to Plectranthus scutellarioides).

All plants have their drawbacks. Annuals die with the frost and have to be replanted the following year. Perennials live several years but their blooming period can be short. But here comes Heliopsis ‘Sunstruck’ from Darwin Perennials, which arrived in my garden as a blooming plant this spring and kept blooming all the way into September. “It’s one of the very few long-blooming perennials,” notes Nau, “and it stands up to high heat and high sun. The variegated green and yellow foliage makes it especially interesting.” Many heliopsis are tall (think sunflowers), but this one tops out at 16 inches, which means it would be good for containers as well. There’s a Sunstruck and a new Double Sunstruck, both with the variegated foliage and the same Zone 4 winter hardiness.

Also getting shrunk down to size by the breeders is the Balmy series of Monarda. This is a series of four plants, three of them new this year, with Balmy Lilac, Balmy Pink and Balmy Rose joining the original Balmy Purple. The plants are only a foot high and they are reputedly Zone 4 hardy. In my garden the Balmy Purple is more of a rich burgundy, but time will tell how it develops.

Editor Carolyn Ulrich has written for Chicagoland Gardening since its inception. She is a former weekly garden columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and has received several awards for magazine writing from the Garden Writers Association.

Photography By Ron Capek



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