The phrase “new and improved” is so cliche it’s often best left out of any marketing strategy. Some items, though, actually are new and improved, such as the yearly All-America Selections award-winning varieties of flowers and vegetables.
Plant breeders are prolific, introducing scores of new items each year, featured in the front pages of every garden seed catalog. The All-America Selections organization selects the best of the best, taking the guesswork out of new flower and vegetable varieties.
Since 1932, All-America Selections volunteer judges across North America have tested new varieties, comparing them to the current best-in-class flowers and vegetables. If it’s sufficiently different or better, a new variety is awarded the coveted honor.
All-America Selections' familiar red, white and blue logo with the abbreviation AAS is often found in seed catalogs and on plant tags, denoting award-winning varieties.
Here are the 2021 award winners, with key characteristics provided by judges.
Celosia, Kelos Candela Pink: Judges loved the bright pink blooms that rose above foliage like tall, tapered candles. Unique, showy plumes of pink flowers kept their color all season, making a perfect filler plant to add height to large combination containers. With flower spikes reaching 24 to 30 inches, it’s great for mass plantings or general flower bed use.
Like other Celosias, it loves heat and sun. As an added bonus, it works as a dried flower. It's propagated vegetatively, rather than by seed, so shop garden centers for plants.
Zinnia, Profusion Red Yellow Bicolor: A beautiful new bicolor addition to the popular Profusion series. Judges described the zinnia as gorgeous with a bold, vibrant red center ring surrounded by golden-yellow outer petals. As the season progresses, the aging flowers morph into soft, beautiful shades of apricot, salmon and dusty rose, bringing a range of colors all from one variety.
Bred with disease resistance, the low-growing, 12-inch plants are perfect for containers or flower bed edges, thriving in heat and sun. Available by seed or as plants from garden centers.
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Leucanthemum, Sweet Daisy Birdy: A perennial daisy, this variety has robust, long-lasting blooms and carefree longevity in gardens with good winter hardiness in zone 3. Cheery flowers are large, 5 inches in diameter and pure white in color, with a perky yellow center. Flowers appeared earlier in the season than comparison types and continued flowering all summer at a height of 24 inches.
Leucanthemums are more commonly known as Shasta daisies, and this variety is vegetatively propagated instead of seed-grown, so look for plants at garden centers.
Squash, Goldilocks: Judges were impressed with the vigorous plants, high yield, disease tolerance and rich nutty flavor of this squash. Bright orange fruits have a uniform shape and color, doubling as ornamental decorations before serving as a delightful dish.
The orange acorn-type squashes are about 4 inches in diameter, born on plants that spread 4 to 5 feet. They can be direct-seeded into gardens or started early indoors two weeks before the outdoor planting date.
Pepper, Pot-a-peno: A fun new jalapeno pepper with a compact habit, this is perfect for growing in containers and hanging baskets. Plentiful small, green jalapeno fruits have a traditional spicy zip. If fruits are left on the vine a few extra weeks, they ripen to red with a sweet, spicy flavor. A dense foliage canopy makes for an attractive addition to your patio or balcony garden.
Seed is available, or look for plants at garden centers.
Echalion, Creme Brulee: This is the first-ever shallot to win AAS designation. Easy-to-peel bulbs have a bright, coppery pink outer skin and a pretty rosy-purple interior with thick rings. Sweet bulbs have a slight citrusy flavor when eaten raw. When caramelized, the natural sugars are enhanced and do not leave overpowering aftertastes.
Seed should be started indoors by March 1 or earlier for seedlings to transplant into the garden in May. If direct-seeded into gardens, bulbs might not reach a decent size until the very late fall.
Note about availability: New AAS winners are usually not found on in-store seed racks. Check locally owned garden centers for starter plants.
For gardeners wishing to purchase seed or start their own transplants, the winners are available from companies including Burpee, Harris Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Jung Seed, Park Seed and Territorial Seed. Some online searching is usually necessary.
Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.