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 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. Information on the program and the 35 Plant Evaluation Notes published to date can be found here.
Look for information on cultivar introductions and evaluations from universities and their affiliated Extension services in the Upper Midwest.
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.
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.