After a long winter thumbing through seed and plant catalogs for inspiration, March is the time when Illinois gardeners can finally start seeds for the spring garden.
But gardening starts long before the first seed is planted and planning is essential for both first-time and experienced gardeners.
“Finding space for new plants that are suited for your USDA hardiness and having blossoms all year long can be a challenge,” says University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Bruce J. Black. “After mapping out your existing perennials, think about what new plants could be added to your landscape.”
A reliable starting place is the list of All-America Selections, AAS. This independent non-profit organization has tested varieties annually since 1933 and an AAS Winners designation is considered the highest garden performance honor in the U.S. New, never-before-sold plant varieties are tested every year at trial sites around the United States and Canada. There are four trial locations in Illinois – three northern, and one central.
Independent judges, who are professional horticulturists, volunteer to evaluate trial entries against comparison plants and the top performers are chosen as winners. For the best plants suited to Illinois, look for Great Lakes or National winners.
This year, there are six AAS winners and five are suited for Illinois – three vegetables and two flowers.
- Echalion, Creme Brulee (Allium cepa var. Creme Brulee): This is the first shallot to ever be awarded the AAS Winner designation. Grown from a seed, this is a sweet tender bulb that is easy to peel and matures earlier than other shallots with only 98 days to harvest. Regional Great Lakes Vegetable Winner.
- Pepper, Pot-a-peno (Capsicum annuum var. Pot-a-peno): A compact, early maturing jalapeno perfect for containers. This green jalapeno changes to red for a sweet, spicy flavor. Time to mature is 45 to 50 days for green fruit and 60 to 65 days for red fruit. Regional Great Lakes Vegetable Winner.
- Squash, Goldilocks (Cucurbita pepo var. Goldilocks): This acorn squash is vigorous, high yielding and disease tolerant. Bright orange with a rich nutty flavor and uniform shape it can be harvested in 70 to 85 days. National Vegetable Winner.
- Celosia, Kelos® Candela Pink (Celosia spicata var. Candela Pink): Like a tapered candle with showy pink plumes that keep color all season, this annual is 25- to 30-inches tall. Feed and water regularly for continued beauty. Regional Great Lakes Flower Winner.
- Zinnia, Profusion Red Yellow Bicolor (Zinnia hybrida var. Profusion Red Yellow Bicolor): This annual flower blossoms with a bold red center encircled by golden petals. As the season goes on, the colors soften into shades of apricot, salmon and rose. Compact at 8- to 14-inches tall and beautiful all season long. Great for a hanging basket or edging. Gold Medal Winner.
“But don’t just stop with the 2021 winners,” Bruce says. “All-America Selections keeps a list of all past vegetables and flowers winners since its founding in 1933.”
Their website, all-americaselections.org, is a great resource for helping to fill out landscapes and gardens with tested varieties that will last.
For more information about gardening, check out the Illinois Extension website Watch Your Garden Grow at web.extension.illinois.edu/veggies/ or Illinois Extension Horticulture YouTube Channel go.illinois.edu/UniversityOfIllinoisExtensionHorticulture.