ATHENS, Ga. — Another steamy Georgia summer is in the books. For the staff at the Trial Gardens at the University of Georgia, it seems like the end of a marathon.
Each summer, gardeners at the trial gardens care for and identify the best-performing plants for Georgia landscapes. This year the staff selected 13 plants for the gardens’ highest honor — the Classic City Awards.
“It has been a good year. We had about 450 different varieties under evaluation in 2019. We trialed with several new companies this year, so it was fun getting to see some different species and genetics,” said John Ruter, gardens director and the Allan Armitage Professor of Horticulture at UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
In addition to being a place to showcase new plants for the gardening public, the gardens serve an important purpose in the research and development of new ornamental varieties. The facility provides variable, real-world conditions for testing new varieties developed by commercial nurseries and academic breeders. This testing provides third-party, verified data for consumers, retailers and plant breeders.
Trial plants are planted every spring and are watched carefully throughout the summer to determine which plants will make the cut and be sold to Southeastern gardeners the following season.
This summer was quite a test, Ruter said.
“It has been a very long, hot summer,” he said. “We have only had three significant rainfall events since mid-April and we are approaching 90 days above 90 degrees. In September we only had seven days that did not reach 90 degrees.”
This summer may not have been as successful if the garden staff hadn’t installed a new irrigation system this spring.
“The ability to control irrigation has led to lush plant growth and fewer plant diseases – thus a garden full of healthy plants,” Ruter said.
When searching for Classic City Award winners, Ruter and Garden Manager Brandon Coker look for plants that can wow the staff, and the gardens’ visitors, between bloom cycles.
“In the end, the plants we choose to win the Classic City Awards are the plants that give us the most beauty over our very long growing season,” Coker said.
Here are the descriptions of this year’s award-winning plants:
Agastache Poquito™ ‘Butter Yellow’
The Poquito™ Agastache series from Terra Nova included four cultivars including ‘Butter Yellow.’ While each was very good, ‘Butter Yellow’ topped the list with its showy strong yellow flower spikes. While many hyssops tend to blend into their surroundings due to wispy stems and leaves, this plant did not. Despite it being the shortest of the seven cultivars trialed this year, ‘Butter Yellow’ stood out from the rest of the cultivars due to its bold visual appeal.
Caladium ‘Clowning Around’
Who names a plant ‘Clowning Around’? Someone at Classic Caladiums saw this plant’s true colors. With curvy uneven green leaf margins, wild green spots, hot pink veins and pink filler, no two leaves quite match up. However, all of the oblong heart-shaped leaves flow well together to form a plant worthy of a second look.
Calibrachoa Lia™ ‘Bubblegum’
There are plenty of pretty pink flowers out in the world but Calibrachoa Lia™ ‘Bubblegum’ by Danziger has got to be the leader of the pack. Large bright pink flowers with creamy yellow eyes make this plant show up from across the garden. Lia™ ‘Bubblegum’ will easily turn heads when combined with other bold colors for container combinations.
Calibrachoa Superbells® ‘Honeyberry’
One of the Trial Gardens’ staff’s personal favorites for the 2019 trialing season is Calibrachoa Superbells™ ‘Honeyberry’ from Proven Winners. No matter how hot it got or how humid it was, this cultivar kept blooming. When a heatwave strikes, Calibrachoas tend to shut down, but ‘Honeyberry’ did no such thing. All summer these plants kept pushing out flowers with iridescent pink petals accompanied by honey yellow throats.
Celosia Kelos® Atomic ‘CESP 1889’
Celosia from Beekenkamp has showy, hot pink flower spikes. In September, the plants stood 36 inches tall with no lodging, which is no doubt due to slender flower spikes. The Trial Gardens contain many Celosia from the Kelos® Atomic and Kelos® series, and they all performed well in Athens. However, this variety is, without a doubt, a standout from the rest. As with most Celosia, this cultivar is also a strong pollinator plant favored by honeybees and bumblebees.
In Georgia, and the rest of the Southeastern United States, has a super-long growing season that can easily stretch to six months. Ball FloraPlant has delivered Cuphea ‘Honeybells’ as a season-long interest and pollinator plant. The garden has this planted in-ground and in a hanging basket, and each performed exceptionally well throughout the summer.
Echibeckia™ Summerina® Sizzling Sunset™
Can’t choose between a coneflower or a black-Eyed Susan? No worries. Pacific Plug & Liner has Echibeckia™. New and novel plants are the specialty at the Trial Gardens where the entire Summerina® series was tested for the 2019 season. Sizzling Sunset™ takes the cake with its large yellow and red flowers with the traditional black eye in the center.
Gaillardia Heat It Up™ ‘Yellow’
Gaillardia Heat It Up™ ‘Yellow’ was on fire this summer from May until September. Its mounds of bright flowers were the talking point for this selection from Proven Winners. Usually, deadheading is the name of the game to keep blanket flowers blooming, but this cultivar required minimal deadheading, which was a huge relief to Trial Garden volunteers.
Gaura ‘Graceful White’
Landscape designers often talk about the importance of having white flowers in gardens as a counterpoint that accentuates all the other colors in the garden. Gaura ‘Graceful White’ from Dummen Orange fits this bill nicely with large white flowers accompanied with shades of pink as the flowers fade. The plant gave the Trial Gardens an excellent first flush early in the season. Following a hard prune, this plant dared to bloom even more lushly the second time.
Berry Genetics Hollywood™ Hibiscus Rico Suave™
The J. Berry website defines a ‘Rico Suave’ as a confident self-assured, impeccably dressed fitness fiend. This Hibiscus struts its pure yellow flowers with hot pink to red centers thru the garden like, “Yea that’s right petunias!” The Trial Gardens had flowers daily from May until September with this stunner and the foliage remained deep green without any special care outside of normal watering and feeding.
These petunias were so vigorous that you could rest in the shadow of a container of Petunia ColorRush™ ‘White’ from Ball FloraPlant. Constant blooms and consistent mounding habit helped this plant be the best in the petunia trials this year. ColorRush™ ‘White’ comes in with a width of over 48″ in diameter per pot and has earned its 2019 Classic City Award.
Portulaca Hot Shots™ ‘Grapefruit’
Portulaca Hot Shots™ ‘Grapefruit’ from Green Fuse Botanicals will be an easy sell at any garden center, with its healthy foliage, heavy flower count and vibrant pink and yellow flowers. This cultivar will add a trailing splash of color to any container planting or could even be skillfully used in a vertical garden. An additional benefit is the attraction of pollinators as soon as the flowers open around mid-morning.
Salvia Skyscraper™ ‘Orange’
A staple plant for all gardeners should be the pollinator and sun-friendly salvias. Salvia Skyscraper™ ‘Orange’ from Selecta is a more compact version of Skyscraper™ ‘Pink,’ but its size does not take away from the overall appeal of the plant. Skyscraper™ ‘Orange’ gives a huge presentation of flowers that plays well with the overall compact growth of the plant, as the flowers all converge into a block of color.
For full descriptions of this year’s Classic City Award winners and information on next year’s trials, visit ugatrial.hort.uga.edu.
–Merritt Melancon, University of Georgia