Most gardeners have favorite go-to plants that perform well in their climate and simply make them happy. For me, those are coneflowers, catmint, liatris, alliums, daylilies, black-eyed Susans and oh so many tomatoes.
But every year, I manage to find at least a little space for something new that woos me from a garden-center shelf or the pages of a catalog.
Behind those customer-facing outlets, plant breeders work tirelessly to produce innovative plants with larger flowers; better disease resistance; improved cold-, heat- or shade-tolerance; longer bloom times and even higher nutrition.
The 2023 season brings us several firsts, including the first-ever groundcover shasta daisy, Leucanthemum "Carpet Angel," from Green Fuse Botanicals. Named a 2023 All-America Selection by the independent, nonprofit organization of the same name, which tests new introductions and bestows the honors each year, the extremely cold-hardy plant starts blooming earlier than other varieties and keeps going straight through fall in zones 4a-10b.
Proven Winners has introduced two new native hummingbird mints in their Meant to Bee collection — "Royal Raspberry" and "Queen Nectarine" — which, as the group's name implies, is beloved by bees. I grew the latter in my test garden last year and was impressed with the terracotta-colored flowers that blanketed most of the plant from mid-summer through fall. Hardy in zones 5-9, the mounding perennial should reach 30-36" in two or three years. (Arkansas is in planting zones 6-8, with the majority of the state in zone 7.)
Also from Proven Winners, I tested out the new Upscale "Red Velvet" bee balm, another native that lures pollinators to the garden. Suitable for part-sun to sun in zones 4-8, the tall Monarda variety emerges from dormancy with bronze-tinged foliage before large, cherry-red flowers take center stage in spring and summer. The deer-resistant plants grow to 32" tall.
The breeder's Rock' N Round "Bright Idea" hybrid sedum stonecrop added a burst of yellow to my sunny test garden with its red stems, serrated green leaves and bright yellow, star-shaped blooms. The 10-12" salt-tolerant perennial attracts bees and butterflies, resists rabbit attacks and thrives in hot, dry spots in zones 3-9.
PanAmerican Seed's Echinacea "Artisan Yellow Ombre," another AAS winner, is a bushy, multi-branched coneflower that produced bright yellow flowers in my test garden. Grow it in full sun in zones 4a-10b and watch as the pollinators come.
The breeder's new Rudbeckia "Goldblitz" is a strong, 28-inch black-eyed Susan with shiny green leaves and abundant blooms. The sun-lover starts blooming about three weeks earlier than other varieties and continues into fall. It's hardy in 3a-9b.
Astilbe "Dark Side of the Moon," a National Gardening Bureau Green Thumb Award winner, is a long-lived, shade-tolerant perennial that attracts bees and resists deer and rabbits. Foliage starts out yellow with a dark margin before turning a rich chocolate brown, and its raspberry-colored buds open to reveal pinkish-purple flowers. The plant is hardy in zones 4-9 and reaches 22", including the tall flower spikes.
The shade-tolerant, downy mildew-resistant "Glimmer" double impatiens from Ball Flora Plant are reminiscent of miniature roses and come in an array of colors, including Appleblossom, Bright Red, Burgundy, Dark Red, Hot Pink, Salmon and White. Plants grow to 10-16" tall and 10-12" wide.
The beautiful tropical "Royal Hawaiian Waikiki" Colocasia elephant ears, bred by University of Hawaii emeritus plant pathologist Dr. John J. Cho, was honored with a National Gardening Bureau 2023 Green Thumb Award. Its large, glossy leaves, adorned with creamy white centers and pink veins, are held atop deep burgundy stems on compact plants sturdy enough to withstand wind and rain. Grow it as an annual in zones 7 and under.
Starflower "Paper Moon" Scabiosa, another Green Thumb Award winner, is a pollinator-friendly annual from Sahin/Takii EU. Its 36-inch stems hold round clusters of pale blue, purple-veined flowers that give way to decorative, papery bronze seed heads, which can be used in fresh bouquets or dry arrangements. For best results, grow it in full sun.
Snapdragon "Double Shot" Orange Bicolor, from Hems Genetics, has uniquely strong, branched stems that hold white-backed, double orange-red flowers that fade to a dusty hue as the season progresses. The All-America Selection winner grows to 18-20 inches tall in full or part sun.
"Sun Dipper" tomato from PanAmerican Seed was named Best New Edible Plant of 2023 by the National Gardening Bureau. Its peanut-shaped, orange fruits, meant to make dipping easier, are perfectly suited for a crudite platter. I grew the indeterminate plant, bred to resist fusarium wilt, tobacco mosaic virus and root-knot nematodes, in my trial garden last summer. It was the only tomato that performed well during the year's too-hot, too-dry season.
Another new tomato, "Vivacious," available to grow from seed this year, is notable for its enhanced nutritional value. Breeder W. Atlee Burpee claims the roughly 3-inch-long, plum-shaped, orange fruits are high in beta carotene, with just one tomato said to provide 40% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A. Each plant promises to produce roughly 70 tomatoes throughout the season.
How about a seedless pepper? "Pepper Pots Sugar Kick" from Proven Winners is a miniature, sweet orange snacking pepper that grows seedless when isolated from other pepper varieties to prevent cross-pollination. The upright plants grow to 20-30 inches tall and are suitable for growing in both containers and the garden. Harvest green fruits in 54 days or orange ones in 74 days.
"Sweet Jade" squash, a single-serving-sized kabocha with sea-green skin and dark orange flesh, produces high yields and has a long storage life. The fruit of the All-America Selection winner, harvestable in fall, weighs just 1-2 pounds apiece.
Jessica Damiano writes regular gardening columns for The Associated Press. She publishes the award-winning Weekly Dirt Newsletter.