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The holidays are over, family and visitors have returned home, and decorations are stored away for another year. It’s time to check out the latest seed catalogs and nationally acclaimed award winners in preparation for spring planting. My quest for new and upcoming plant varieties will include selections for both soil grown and hydroponically grown plants. I’ve downsized a good deal on the quantity of plants out in the garden because much of my energy is being used in my full-time position as a grower for Five Oaks Farm to grow hydroponic lettuce and microgreens for local restaurants. It takes restraint, being somewhat of a plant addict, not to order too many different varieties. As in garden design, a lot of a little is better than a little of a lot.

Having the luxury of a small hoop house (20-feet x24-feet) allows me the opportunity to start many seeds for the garden in February, including tomato, cucumber and squash. By starting this early, I have plants with good-size root systems all ready for the garden at the beginning of April. This winter has been so mild to date that pepper plants from last summer are still producing great peppers, both hot and sweet. Fall plantings of carrot, radish, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, broccoli, kale and collards, snow pea, cilantro and arugula add to the harvest. I picked the last two wonderful pumpkins and butternut squash just a few days ago. Several light frosts had killed the vegetative growth of these plants. I have allowed the tangle of vines and decomposing leaves to remain in the garden to enrich the soil over the next few months while keeping winter weeds at bay.

My first go-to, as I consider plants for 2020, is the listing of the All-America Selections (AAS) winners, determined by a nationally acclaimed organization that was started in 1932. The plant selections are chosen by a panel of expert judges. These plants have been tested in gardens across North America and have proven their superior performance in these trials. Selections include annuals, perennials and vegetables. AAS winners are bred and produced without using genetic engineering (non-GMO). Over the years, my husband and I have grown many of these plants, some with great success and some not so successful. Our humidity and prolonged heat does not allow every selection to thrive in our coastal area. This year, I hope to try a new cucumber, Green Light, and two new tomatoes, Crockini and Chef’s Choice Bicolor. Green Light is a mini-cucumber with earlier maturity. Flowers are all female and fruits are seedless. It is suggested by the AAS judges to pick them a 3-4 inches in length. Crockini is a very sweet red cherry tomato with inbred late blight resistance. Judges feel it tastes better that Sweet Million. Chef’s Choice Orange was a favorite last year in our garden so it should be fun to grown Chef’s Choice Bicolor this year as well. These tomatoes are large heirloom-like tomatoes that weigh in at 7-8 ounces each. Fruits have beautiful pinkish red internal stripes within a yellow flesh. Our Chef Choice Orange plants produced about 30 fruits each with last harvests occurring in July on the barrier islands. These new additions will be planted with personal proven favorites, Jackson Supreme and General Lee cucumbers and Bumblebee Artesian series of cherry tomatoes, Jasper and Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, Black Krim, Cherokee Purple and Striped German heirloom tomatoes.

I can’t exclude the flower world, and so I hope to locate and purchase both perennial AAS selections, Echinacea Sombero Baja Burgundy and Rudbeckia x American Gold Rush in order to add them to other cultivars already established in my home garden. Baja Burgundy is a new cultivar of coneflower with deep violet-red blossoms which should blend in nicely with my traditional pinkish purple coneflower blooms. “Goldsturm” Black-Eyed Susan has had a place in my garden for years. It has deep yellow rays with black discs that start to bloom in July. It has been susceptible to leaf spot. American Gold Rush has been bred with resistance to Septoria leaf spot and offers bright, golden-yellow flowers. I will have to tuck these new selections in and around perennial salvias and rosemary to avoid nibbling by browsing deer. Deer eat foliage of both (despite what you may read) and the flowers of Black-eyed Susan. Once blooming, the deer do not prefer the prickly coneflower blooms.

Johnny Selected Seeds and True Leaf Market both offer top quality seed with excellent germination rates. All my hydroponic lettuce and microgreen selections come from them. However, my choices are not just limited to growing indoors in a sealed, controlled environment. What I grow hydroponically can also be grown outdoors and it’s not too late to grow lettuce or microgreens. Check out their many offerings on the web or send for a catalog if you prefer. I like having the catalogs in my hands, This allows me to sit down and go through the entire selection of choices, marking pages that offer the new choices. Then I go to the web to place my order. It’s not uncommon for me to purchase $100 or more worth of seed for spring plantings.

My final research brings me to the Perennial Plant Association’s pick for 2020. The Perennial Plan of the Year is Aralia cordata “Sun King.” Now, Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa) is native to our woodlands, and is found growing on the edges where it gets a few hours of sunlight. It has an exotic, tropical appearance. The deciduous leaves are very large, doubly or triply compound leaves and are the largest leaves of any temperate tree in the continental U. S. often reaching three feet in length and two feet in width. The plant has sharp spiny stems and leaf petioles. Even the leaf midribs can be spiny. The leaves are at the top of the stem; plants are often found growing in clumps. White flowers appear in late summer, followed by edible black berries. “Sun King” is a gold form of Japanese Spikenard (Aralia cordata). It emerges in the spring with large, bold bright gold leaves. Like its relative, it prefers just a few hours of sunlight daily. It also has white flowers in the summer but its purple berries are inedible. It might be interesting to plant a couple on the woodland borders adjacent to our home. Something new is always worth a try!

Hello, 2020!