Passing the test

September 23, 2014
Written by Diane Blazek
You might have heard about select flower or vegetable varieties that have been named AAS Winners but do you know the “story behind the story?”

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Pepper Sweet Sunset F1 (2015).

 
The most succinct way to describe it comes from a garden writer who described it to me thusly after I gave him an explanation: “Oh, so the All-America Selections Winner designation is a lot like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval or the Underwriter Laboratories Classification?”

I was so pleased that this person immediately “got it” when it came to understanding the AAS trialing and subsequent award program. Additionally, he had just given me a quick and easy way to explain the program to others!

To clarify his statement, we did a little research about the other organizations and their processes then compared it to the AAS trialing process. These statements are excerpted from the respective web sites:

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University of Guelph has hosted plant trials for many years.
 
Good Housekeeping: The purpose and mission of the [Good Housekeeping] Institute is to serve the needs and interests of the homemakers and homes of the United States. The facility includes test stations where the work is conducted under practical household conditions. Any product that withstands the investigation and experience of the Institute staff is eligible to be included in the list of “Tested and Approved” products.

UL’s Mission: Working for a safer world since 1894 by advancing safety science through research and investigation and by supporting the production and use of products which are physically and environmentally safe.

The mission and purpose of All-America Selections is as follows:

To promote new garden varieties with superior garden performance judged in impartial trials in North America. We will test new, unsold cultivars; we will inform gardeners about the AAS Winners; and we will earn gardeners’ trust in the AAS Winners.

In other words, all three organizations (Good Housekeeping, UL and All-America Selections) test products in neutral surroundings, rate those products and then assign their respective awards or designations to the products that have met their rigorous set of standards.

Currently, AAS has 73 judges in more than 32 states and provinces throughout North America. These judges are professionals in the field of horticulture and range from breeders and academia to trial managers, commercial growers and others. All the judges generously volunteer their time to plant, observe, analyze and score the new plants that are entered into our program each year.

COMPARING NEW VARIETIES WITH EXISTING PERFORMERS
However, the process begins at the breeder level. Each breeder selects possible AAS entries from their new, never-before-sold introductions. They submit those to AAS for trialing, at which time a group of knowledgeable experts choose two comparisons of similar varieties that are already on the market.

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1. ‘Serenita’ (2014) is a compact angelonia ideal for very hot and humid conditions. The AAS Judges praised it for being drought- and heat-tolerant while continuing to produce a large number of flower stems all season long.
 
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2. ‘Cheyenne’ (2013) is a stunning first-year flowering echinacea with a delightful mix of flower colours on well branched, durable plants.  
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3. In the history of AAS, ‘Bopak F1’ is the first Pak Choi to become an AAS Winner. Bopak matures early and the tender leaves with crisp sweet stalks taste great.
 
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4. Penstemon ‘Arabesque Red’ (2014, regional) is the first penstemon to become an AAS Winner in more than 80 years of trialing. It is a season-long repeat bloomer with large tubular blooms.  
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5. Petunia ‘African Sunset’ (2014, national) blooms prolifically all season long with orange-hued flowers. The mounded spreading plants are 12” tall and spread to 32”.  
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6. ‘Sandy’ is an attractive oak leaf type lettuce with a multitude of sweet tasting frilly dark-green leaves. It has exceptional disease resistance, especially to powdery mildew, and is slow to bolt.
 
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7. ‘Sunflower ‘Suntastic’ (2014, regional) is a naturally dwarf and compact early flowering sunflower. This floriferous variety produces up to 20 flowers per plant.  
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8. Gaura ‘Sparkle White’ (2014, national) is a floriferous and graceful plant with an exceptionally long period of bloom. It features early flowering with more controlled habit and excellent branching.
 
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9. Ornamental pepper NuMex Easter (2014, national) is a compact plant with small clusters of four to six fruits on top of the plant. The colours of the fruit resemble the pastel colours of Easter eggs.
 
When breeders choose to enter one of their new and previously unsold cultivars, they select one of three categories: Seed Ornamentals, Vegetative Ornamentals, or Edibles.

The judges are asked to score on very specific traits or improvements for each plant, as observed in both a greenhouse and garden setting.

For example, of interest to growers, the judge may be asked to rate uniformity, disease resistance or shorter crop time. For the home gardener, the judge might be asked to evaluate flower earliness, better productivity or improved taste for edibles. These are just a few of the many qualities for which an AAS Winner might be evaluated.

After the growing season and scoring tabulation, all the entries with scores that meet our criteria are approved as possible AAS Winners. Only after the breeder has met quality and quantity standards can they accept the award.

It’s at that point the promotion and marketing of that AAS Winner to the industry, garden writers and home gardeners gets underway.

Occasionally, an entry is considered a breeding breakthrough and gets such high marks that it is deemed an “AAS Gold Medal Award Winner.” In 80 years, AAS has granted fewer than 50 such awards. The most recent Gold Medal award winners were Fresh Look Red Celosia, Purple Majesty Ornamental Millet and the Profusion Zinnias from the late 1990s.

Good Housekeeping uses their own magazine and website to promote the products they’ve deemed worthy of their Seal of Approval.

All-America Selections is very lucky to have the support of the trade publications such as this one, garden writers, bloggers, extension agents, university personnel, radio show personalities and others, to help spread the word about the AAS Winners. This publicity helps raise the awareness of these specific varieties and drives consumers to ask for them by name.

USING SOCIAL MEDIA TO REACH MORE PEOPLE
Recently, AAS has embraced several social media tools to further market AAS Winners, both past and present, to an even broader audience. In celebration of our 80th anniversary several years ago, the AAS board of directors approved a new “refreshed” logo to further the identity of the organization and to help escort us into our next 80 years of trialing and promoting high-quality ornamentals and edibles.

Another component of the AAS marketing program is our group of more than 180 display gardens. Every year, these public gardens (such as Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Assiniboine Park Conservancy in Winnipeg, the Botanical Garden of Montreal, and Rotary Park in Medicine Hat) receive the AAS Winners from the past five years. They grow these plants and put them on display with the appropriate AAS signage to show the millions of garden visitors how the AAS Winners perform in a garden setting.

All AAS display gardens are open to the public. The AAS trials grounds can be viewed only by making an appointment with that site’s trial judge. A list of both the display gardens and trial grounds can be found on the AAS website at www.aaswinners.com .

After a recent overhaul, the AAS web site has a brand-new look that includes a great many tools to help retailers sell more of these special plants.

FREE DOWNLOADABLE MARKETING MATERIALS
For example, retailers can print signs, brochures and bench cards using the free, downloadable documents found on the site. Growers and retailers should also inquire with their favorite tag/label company about products sporting the AAS logo that will promote and sell the AAS Winner collection.

The site is also the place to find lists of all AAS winners, sorted by year of introduction or by class. We make new announcements three times per year: November, January and July.

AAS also recently started recognizing regional performance with the first introductions of our regional winners. We have divided North America into six regions (a regional map can be found on the website) and highlighted which varieties have great garden performance in specific areas (though not necessarily in all regions).

The acceptance of this new way of looking at AAS Winners has been tremendous as gardeners really want to know what will perform best in their own back (or front) yards.

Another new venture is the trialing of vegetative ornamentals, which is currently in its first year. As we all know, vegetative annuals really took off about 20 years ago and rapidly became a big segment of the total ornamental market. So All-America Selections has now embraced vegetative annuals in our trials and we hope to have our first vegetatively propagated Winners to announce in the next six to eight months.

And we hear you asking about perennials too! Right now, we trial perennials as first-year-flowering annuals and have quite a few winners in that category such as Cheyenne Spirit Echinacea, Arabesque™ Red penstemon and Sparkle White gaura. We do hope future trials accommodate a multi-year trial for all types of perennials.

So hop on the bandwagon and start selling the varieties that you know have been “Tested Nationally & Proven Locally” … your customers will thank you!


Diane Blazek is the executive director of All-America Selections.

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