The cast is out there, in catalogs, on seed racks and, before long, in flats of young plants ready for the garden.
Which plants will star?
Which flowers and vegetables will play supporting roles?
Which new varieties oh dear will flop?
That's the mystery looming in midwinter as gardeners contemplate their selections for flower beds and vegetable plots.
There's always something new, starlets with potential, even award winners that first faced the scrutiny of judges. Now, demanding gardeners, not forgetting last year's record drought but looking ahead with optimism, get their shot.
Is there a superstar in the making?
"It awaits the test of time, and it's not predictable," says Nona Wolfram-Koivula, executive director of All-America Selections of Downers Grove, Ill. "You have to wait and see which will be the most popular. The gardeners are the ones that make the pick."
The best of the lot
All-America Selections, a seed industry organization, has honored the best of new flowers and vegetables for North America since 1933. This year it named 13 winners.
It's an honor not easily overlooked as catalogs, seed envelopes and plant tags usually note the award as a signal of its value.
Even before new flowers and vegetables face the gardening public, they've gone though thorough testing in a wide range of environments across the United States and Canada. Winners must be distinctly different from existing varieties. The new "family friendly" Chilly chili ornamental and edible pepper is an example of a new variety. Breeders got the heat out of this pepper so they it won't burn your fingers when you pick it.
Or they must possess special attributes or new colors: The Jaio Scarlet Eye vinca is a scarlet and rose bloom with white center. Sparkler Blush cleome is a shorter and neater look for an old favorite. It grows 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide.
"In the vegetable line, they are trying hard to breed disease resistance. To a gardener, that's real important," says Steve Cochran, sales representative for Syngenta Seeds Inc., a brokerage house for several hundred vendors in the industry.
A new winter squash named Cornell's Bush Delicata, for example, resists powdery mildew. It won All-America honors. The new winning cucumber named Diva offers even more: tolerance of scab, and powdery and downy mildew.
Often, says Cochran, new varieties with great potential for commercial success fit a niche between established types.
For example, there will be a new petunia in the Proven Winners line this spring called the Supertunia Mini, which are early bloomers and compact enough for pots or baskets.
"The minis are a midsized bloom. They fit in between the Million Bells (very small blooms) and the Supertunias (large blooms)."
While color, shape and disease resistance play heavily in the judging, says Wolfram-Koivula, the most important thing is overall performance.
"It's their ability," she says, "to perform all over North America with consistent reliability."
Cochran says the effort is ongoing to develop varieties of popular flowers and vegetables that meet certain goals: zinnias that can withstand powdery mildew and black spot; marigolds that don't get botrytis; petunias that bloom quicker in the spring and thus raise their sales appeal.
A new approach to disease prevention, he notes, comes from The Flower Fields line of coleus. The bronze red coleus named Tilt-a-Whirl for its distinctive markings is propagated by virus-free cuttings. Another new line of vegetatively propagated annuals is the Babylon series of verbena, shown to withstand cold to 20 degrees, extending the show well through autumn.
As gardeners peruse catalogs and dream of spring, Wolfram-Koivula believes the All-America winners for 2002 "are a very good group of 13. There's a winner for every gardener, no matter how or where they garden." But looking ahead, perhaps 15 years, which one does she think will become a superstar, a la the enduring Clemson Spineless okra, Sugar Snap peas, First Lady marigolds and Rocket snapdragons?
"The cucumber Diva that's my best guess," she says. "It's an unusual type of cucumber, a slicing type without the bitter taste. No bitterness, no seeds and easy growing."