I just read a magazine article praising new varieties available for the first time this year. I noticed that most of the producers of these new garden plants also advertised in that magazine. The person who wrote the article almost certainly never grew them.
OK, I’m getting cynical. But increasingly I resent new things. Maybe it’s because I am getting to be an old thing myself, and I have a fuller understanding of how old things are sometimes better. Or maybe it’s because in times past, when I knew even less than I know now, I was taken in by such seductive articles. The newest must be the best, right? Well, no. Not always. I’ll give you my favorite example.
In my opinion the best garden marigold is First Lady, introduced in 1968. But if you want it in your garden, you will have to grow it from seed, and you’ll have to look hard even to find the seed. You won’t find it in six packs in your local nursery or megamart. Why? Because they are selling you newer varieties that are “better”. But are they better in your garden? Probably not.
The breeders who develop new varieties don’t do it for us. They do it for their biggest customers, the nurseries and commercial growers. Naturally they seek qualities that these big buyers want.
The “new and better” varieties bloom slightly earlier than their lesser predecessors. They grow fast from seed and then flower in the packs about the time you are lusting to plant something. Which means that they will sell while First Lady, which blooms a few weeks later, sits green on the bench. First Lady will probably perform better in your garden, but that makes no difference if no one takes it home.
Another example is Non-Stop tuberous begonia. Non-Stop begonias are ... what is the word I’m looking for ... hideous. They are to other tuberous begonias as crabgrass is to Kentucky bluegrass. No, as crabgrass is to miscanthus Morning Light. It is a terrible travesty of a plant, and it is the best selling tuberous begonia in America.
Why? Same reason. A commercial grower can start seed in January and have a plant with blossoms, puny as they may be, in May, when you are desperate for flowers, at a price you will pay without thought. They fly off the benches.
A real tuberous begonia takes time, which means expense to the grower. And any plant with flowers, no matter how wanting, sells better in May, when the fevers are up, than a brown lump.
A handful of these new plants proudly carry the All America Selections seal each spring, and they are sometimes very good. First Lady marigold was an All America Selections winner. But there is something you should know about All America Selections.
To win the award the plants are trialed all over the country for two or three years prior to their introduction. They must perform well in California and Iowa and Maine. A flower or vegetable that is outstanding in your garden, perhaps even better than the latest AAS winner, may not make the cut because it doesn’t do well in Tucson. But what do you care. Like First Lady, many touted AAS varieties disappear from the market in three or four years.
The message is that if you have something that has done well for you for years, don’t dump it for the promise of something new and better. There’s a pretty good chance you’ll be disappointed.