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What's New or What's Good

Kathy Zuzek, UMN Extension Educator, Horticulture

An enormous interest for most gardeners during our long winter is the search for new cultivars that can be added to next year's garden. But is new always good? The answer to that question depends on whether new cultivars have been shown to perform well in Minnesota gardens before their introduction into garden centers. Horticultural professionals should provide customers with the best performing plant selections for Minnesota's difficult climate. But the current trend in horticulture is to move new plants onto the market in the shortest possible time frame, creating a rapid process of both cultivar introduction and elimination in the market.

This creates several problems for gardeners interested in sustainable gardening and in planting cultivars known to have long-term landscape value. New cultivars are now introduced to Minnesota gardeners from breeding and evaluation programs around the world. When new cultivars are rushed to the market, there is often no time for the evaluation of the plant's performance in Upper Midwest gardens prior to introduction. Purchasing and planting new un-trialed cultivars among annuals or herbaceous perennials may be an acceptable risk for gardeners to take. These plants are relatively inexpensive and establish and grow to maturity quickly. It is much riskier in terms of money, labor, and time invested if gardeners purchase and grow un-trialed shrubs and especially trees that take decades to reach maturity.

If newly introduced cultivars are displaced quickly by even newer cultivars, there is also little time to evaluate their long-term potential in the landscape between their introduction and their elimination from nursery catalogs. This sets up a situation where newer cultivars prove to be a good performer in our Minnesota gardens but by the time this fact is recognized, the plant has already been removed from nursery catalogs.

The emphasis on new cultivars may also result in the elimination from the nursery trade of much older cultivars as they are removed to make room for new cultivars in a nursery's production schedule. The introduction of new cultivars that have been shown to be improvements over older cultivars is an exciting event for gardeners, especially for northern gardeners who have a smaller pool of plants to choose from than southern gardeners. But what if older cultivars that have proven their long-term landscape value over decades of time are replaced with un-trialed cultivars that fall short of the mark?

As wise gardeners, we can help solve these problems by asking "What's good?" rather than "What's new?" Finding information on plant performance in Minnesota or the Upper Midwest can be a tough go though. Here are some suggestions:

Take advantage of the information available from plant evaluation programs. Plant evaluation programs for the Upper Midwest are few and far between but here are a few examples:

  • The Chicago Botanic Garden has been home to the Plant Evaluation Program for 28 years.

    Kathy Zuzek

    Photo 1: Plant Evaluation Notes

    The goal of this program is to determine, through scientific evaluation, which annuals, perennials, vines, shrubs, and trees are superior for gardens in the Upper Midwest.

  • The All-America Selections program was founded in 1932 and is a national program that annually evaluates and identifies new garden seed varieties with superior garden performance based on impartial trialing at 47 sites throughout North America. The horticultural garden at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, Minnesota is home to one of these test sites. More information on this evaluation program can be found here.

  • Look for information on cultivar introductions and evaluations from universities and their affiliated Extension services in the Upper Midwest.

  • The University of Minnesota's Department of Horticulture is home to research programs that develop cultivars of turf grasses, herbaceous perennials, ornamental shrubs and trees, and fruit crops. Cultivars developed through the efforts of these research programs are highlighted here in a publication titled Minnesota Hardy. Information on garden plant selection can also be found on the University of Minnesota Extension Garden web page.

  • North Dakota State University's Department of Plant Sciences has selected 42 ornamental shrub and tree cultivars that perform well in North Dakota's Zone 3, low moisture climate. Many of these cultivars perform well in Minnesota too. Information on these cultivars can be found here.

  • Ask for information from your knowledgeable gardening friends, garden center staff, and any landscape design and maintenance professionals whose objective knowledge you value. Cultivar information provided by knowledgeable friends and objective horticultural professionals may be anecdotal, but this is often the best information we have given the dwindling support for formal plant evaluation programs. These are the people who will know plants that have stood the test of time in Minnesota landscapes.

    Visit the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum grounds and website regularly to view plants that are hardy enough to grow in Zone 4 and sometimes Zone 3. The arboretum is home to thousands of ornamental cultivars of annuals, herbaceous perennials, ornamental shrubs and trees, and vegetable and fruit cultivars.

  • Information on the locations of cultivars of particular interest to you is readily available from arboretum staff.

  • Use the arboretum as an outdoor classroom. A few visits during the year can provide you with practical information on cultivars of interest to you. Observing plants during their seasons of interest whether it is during bloom display, fruit display, fall color, or in winter, can be most helpful. Visits in late summer and early fall to view overall plant appearance give good visual information on how well a plant has tolerated disease and insect pests throughout the growing season.

  • Check out the plant labels as you observe perennial herbaceous or woody cultivars you are interested in. Labels of plants in permanent plantings will have an 8-digit number on them. The first four numbers will give you a close approximation of the year the cultivar was planted, plant age, and how long the plant has been growing at the arboretum. For example a label reading "19880247" indicates a plant that was planted in 1988 or shortly afterwards.

  • Kathy Zuzek

    Photo 2: Plant Info link on the arboretum website

  • Check out the Plant Info tab on the arboretum website.

    A visit to this webpage can provide information on wholesale and retail nurseries that provide mail order service and carry your plant of interest. The webpage also has links to and lists of other websites, books, and magazines carrying information about and photos of your plant of interest.

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