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GARDENING | Gardening Q&A

Even the Chard Is Coming Up Roses

January 04, 1998|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

The annual All-America Selections in bedding plants and vegetables and the All-America Rose Selections have been gardening traditions for more than 60 years.

Gardeners could hardly wait to get their hands on these new plants, especially the roses, but in recent years many have greeted the New Year's news with a yawn: yet another new petunia or impatiens, yet another hybrid tea rose that looks like every other.

But these awards are still significant, even though the competition is limited by the very high entry fees.

The seed company or the rose grower must pay entry fees that can be as high as several thousand dollars to enter plants in the competitions, so not every rose gets a chance, or every flower or vegetable.

The high cost also makes growers think twice, because they are reluctant to enter plants they think might not have mass appeal. So these "new" plants are often as conservative as a dark blue suit.

In the last few years, however, gardeners have become more discriminating, more wont to go their own way. They're planting paisley.

Daring Introductions

They may not want a slightly improved hybrid tea--they'd prefer a ruffly English rose, thank you--and have little use for a new impatiens in a garden filled with fascinating salvias and other new treasures. So, over the last couple of years, these new introductions have been getting more daring.

A Thai basil and an outrageous Swiss chard with rainbow-colored stalks won All-America Selections for 1998, and two of the four '98 rose selections are shrubby landscape varieties.

Even the impatiens that won an All-America award is distinctly different, the first reliable semi-double flowered form. On the downside, though, the other two of the four rose selections are traditional hybrid teas, one of which is so undistinguished that one of the judges couldn't recall what it looked like.

Although the awards are looking a little tattered after all these years, they are still legitimate. Winners tend to be tough new plants that have been grown in a variety of climates and situations and were liked by quite a few judges. If you want to try something brand new and there's room in the garden, they are still good choices.

The most exciting '98 award winner appears to be the chard called 'Bright Lights.' Ruby chard, 'Vulcan' and other red-stemmed chards have always made decorative plants, and clever gardeners often put them in the flower garden to create an edible landscape.

The new chard's stems come in a rainbow of colors from yellow and gold to pink and violet, sometimes with stripes, and the taste is said to be milder than that of other chard. You can order it and find out for yourself when the seed catalogs arrive (All-America winners are offered only as seed during their first year). In most parts of Orange County and in the L.A. Basin, you can plant chard as early as February, though most gardeners make it a spring and summer crop because it stands up to some heat.

You'll want to wait until spring to try the new lemon basil, which is supposed to have a very strong lemon fragrance. It's named 'Sweet Dani,' and the breeders were going for "a high essential oil and citral content." A handsome plant, it too can be used in an edible landscape.

Other All-America winners are the semi-double impatiens called 'Victorian Rose' and a new yellow petunia "that neither fades nor blushes pink," according to the press packet. Named 'Prism Sunshine,' this grandiflora petunia has flowers about 3 inches across. You must wait until spring to plant either.

But right now is the time to shop for and plant roses, while nurseries have their biggest selection.

You don't have to take the word of a press release with the new rose selections; their merits are a little easier to ascertain because one of the two test gardens in California is at Descanso Gardens. Curator Mary Brosius thinks the shrubby 'Fame!' is the standout of the four.

She describes it as half-grandiflora and half-shrub rose, growing tall to about 6 feet but being quite bushy. The flowers are a strong (almost hot) pink, "like Electron," she said.

She also likes the apricot to peachy flowers on 'Sunset Celebration,' a hybrid tea named in honor of Sunset magazine's 100th anniversary. Though it's a hybrid tea, so far it is not a strong grower and is only about 2 1/2 feet tall at Descanso. The other hybrid tea that won a '98 award is 'Opening Night'; it grows to about 5 feet and the flowers are red.

'First Light' is the other landscape rose that won an award. Its parents were 'Bonica' and 'Ballerina,' and it's a low, bushy plant--about 2 by 4 feet around--with clusters of little quarter-sized pink flowers.

Brosius is more impressed with some non-AARS roses, however.

She is having fun planting the new Romantica roses, from French grower Meilland, in Descanso's garden. These could best be described as voluptuous hybrid teas, a French Provincial version of an English rose.

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