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Growing in the Green: Sampling this year’s standouts

November 6, 2013  By Melhem Sawaya

The best growing weather in a long time was certainly reflected in the quality of most varieties this past trials season.

The best growing weather in a long time was certainly reflected in the quality of most varieties this past trials season.

If there was a poorly performing variety this season, I definitely feel that it should never be on any retail shelf, grown in a greenhouse, distributed by a broker, or even produced by the breeder!


To fully benefit from trials we must be prepared to apply what we learn from them during the next season. It’s so important the horticulture industry always puts consumer success as its first priority. Carrying products that look good on the sales bench while knowing they may not perform well for the consumer is bad for business. This is so short-sighted, because that consumer will shop somewhere else. Worse than that, they may give up on gardening altogether.

Most of the time when we go to trial gardens we look for varieties that are good performers, which is great. What is just as important  is to look for those performing poorly, eliminate them from our program, and send the message to the supplier.

Saying this brings impatiens walleriana into the picture: every cultivar I saw this year had problems. So if you’re still asking how many to grow next season, the answer is a no-brainer – don’t grow any if you care about your livelihood and the future of industry.

Again reviewing the past season, we had very few rainy nights, but fortunately most of the days were still sunny and hot. It is amazing how fast the recovery is for some plants, and how there is virtually no setback for them at all, while others look like they went through the “heavy-duty” cycle in the washing machine! The weaker varieties took five to seven days to recover, mainly from shattered flowers, with botrytis getting hold of the rest if they were not deadheaded. Geranium is the first genus that comes to mind.

Many of the varieties that are not supposed to take heat very well performed very well this year, including osteospermum and lobelia. The flowers lasted a very long time.

My conclusion, which is based on observation only, is that flower longevity is related to the average temperature. The higher the temperature, the shorter the duration of flowering. However, if plants are outside in full sun and watered well, flowering is much better even under high temperatures. However, it is still true the flower life cycle is weaker under higher temperatures especially when light levels are low or the crop is overly shaded. That is why most of the plants – if not all of them – flower better and the flower life cycle is much longer outdoors in full sunlight than in the shade.

The main purpose of the Sawaya Garden Trials is to see which varieties perform best in our climate.

For the past 13 years we have seen some genera perform well and others have struggled.

Production of calibrachoa, for example, has increased by over a thousand-fold, not only in Ontario, but throughout Canada as well. This drastic increase is due to its excellent garden performance, and the exceptional show it puts on from early spring to late fall as long as we are able to fertilize it on a regular basis with every watering.

Ivy geranium in Ontario, in my experience, is a total loss as a garden performer, and we see that hardly any of the regular type were produced either. However, production of interspecific varieties such as Caliente and balcony types is on the increase. After all, we are growing plants for the ultimate consumer, and their success is our success.

All the trial plants are donated, and then sold by Norfolk General Hospital volunteers, right from the site of the trial gardens. The people who come are amazed by the quality of the plants, and are happy to pay $20 a pot for annuals … even on Aug. 20!

So, why are gardeners not getting the full potential beauty out of their plants?

The answer is simple: we are not communicating effectively to the ultimate consumer. Unless we are planning to shrink our sales by 2.5 per cent every year, we’d better get together with our buyers (stores, garden centres) and representatives of the greenhouse industry and educate the consumer. This, of course, is in addition to doing our homework in selecting varieties that perform the best in the garden.

Here are some of the steps to increase our sales:

  • Grow only the varieties that are garden-performer proven.
  • Sell plants in larger containers than you are used to, i.e., placing the flats material in much larger cells or 4” pots, and putting 4” material into 6” pots.

The rule-of-thumb is that if you have to apply growth regulators more than once to make the plant fit into the container, the container is too small for the plant. Keep this in mind with dahlia, blue salvia, Profusion zinnias, African marigolds, and gazania, to mention a few.

  • Plant in a good potting media with no weird additives.
  • Suggesting you can extend watering frequencies is a false expectation to the consumer.
  • Top-dressing the containers with slow-release fertilizer could be a setback for varieties that cannot take a heavy dose of fertilizer at once, and that will happen when we get high temperatures since all the slow-release fertilizers are
  • triggered by temperature and especially if the plants are not getting timely enough water.
  • Provide liquid fertilizer free, as a bonus, to customers when they buy your plants.
  •  Mix this in a 200 L barrel, and a thousand times concentrated, so the consumer can dilute it to end up with a solution of approximately 150 ppm.
  • If we don’t do anything else, we must sell simplified drip kits so the homeowner can water plants effectively and regularly.

I guarantee you that plant sales will increase three to four per cent every year rather than decrease by two to three per cent. I have first-hand experience with people who visit our trials: they ask about our drip system and I tell them where to buy it and the simple steps needed to put it together. Those who install it always return to thank me for the hint. They also tell me they are going to buy many more plants because they know the plants are going to do very well and without any more work.

Get involved in advertising plants and their benefits. In this industry, there is no sitting on the fence. If we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.

Here are some highlights from our trials this summer.

It is not very practical to share with you the performance of all 2,200 cultivars, so this year I decided to pick a few cultivars that were excellent performers and that I am going to call “Gardener’s Repeaters,” or “GRs.” These varieties are not in any order of importance.

Remember, if you have never grown any of these varieties before and are interested in them, just grow a low percentage of your production to evaluate their success of
production and evaluate consumer appeal. You can then decide to increase production or drop the variety.

If you decide to increase production of a new variety after trialling for a season, make sure you take a good look at a variety you can drop.


‘Dragon Wing Pink’ begonia (1) is the variety that proved to the producers, breeders, growers, and retailers that a garden proven variety is definitely a Gardener’s Repeater.

Many flowerbeds are covered with red or pink Dragon Wings. We can improve on their performance by supplying plants in gallons with minimal or no growth regulators that are not past their prime. My definition of “pretty” is always associated with a live and flourishing plant; the prettiest plant or flower, if it is in rough shape after a rain or hot day, is very ugly. It’s best to sell it as a picture in an art museum but please do not sell it to gardeners!


‘Vera Pink’ bougainvillea (2) is a different flowering plant and stands alone as a high-end quality plant. For the last three years, we have had them in our trials and to my surprise they flower the whole summer with dense clusters of florets that last a very long time. This allows more than enough time for other branches to set buds and flower. Vera bougainvillea is excellent in large containers the whole summer long. I am confident that it makes the GR list.


‘Butterfly Yellow’ argyranthemum (3) is one of the oldest vegetative varieties. It still stands out in our trials year after year. This is an excellent container variety alone or with other combinations. It’s also great in landscapes.


‘Senorita Rosalita’ cleome (4) is another great garden performer right from Day 1 until you decide to pull it out in late fall. It could have a higher cost at purchase time but it covers a large area of the garden with a great performance that justifies the cost.


‘Pinball Purple’ (5) is a new vegetative cultivar of gomphrena that flowers the whole season on sturdy stems. No deadheading is needed, and it does well in rainy, sunny, hot and cold weather. It is definitely a GR.


‘Sweet Romance’ (6) is a great lavendula variety with sturdy stems topped by a long stretch of blooms that last a very long time. I have never seen ‘Sweet Romance’ without flowers. It is great for large containers and is even better in landscapes.


‘Galya Yellow’ gaillardia (7) is a peren-nial, but it flowers without any vernalization. It is covered with masses of apricot flowers that start late in the spring and last into the frost season. It could be used in containers or landscapes.


‘First Love Pink’ veronica (8), like ‘Galya Yellow,’ flowers without any vernalization. First Love blooms most of the summer and into late fall. It has excellent container performance.


‘Pineapple Mango’ achillea (9) is the third perennial on our list that does not need any vernalization and flowers the whole summer. The colourful blooms last a long time.


‘Santana Banana Punch’ (10) and ‘Landmark Citrus’ (11) are two lantanas that have great summer performance. They both perform well in rainy weather but excel during hot, dry summers. Lantanas make excellent hanging baskets or upright containers and are effective in landscapes. Lantanas should be sold in late spring to show their full potential at sales time.


‘Margarita Bronze Bicolour’ (12) is a great example of the new osteospermum varieties. Most, if not all of them, will flower the whole summer, so it is time to stop marketing them as a genus for cold weather. This creates a negative point of sale for two reasons:

  • Producing them for early dates requires much more in energy costs.
  • By promoting them as a cool crop for May 1 sales, you cannot sell them later in the season.

‘Serena Lavender Pink’ (13), like all angelonia, loves the heat, does not need deadheading, and the rain does not hurt it. Angelonia flowers continuously through the whole season. Serena is a seed variety that is economical and easy to produce. Most definitely a GR.


‘Temari Blue’ (14) is the variety that spurred the increased popularity of verbena, and it is still one of the best varieties on the market. Temari has large clusters of flowers that, compared to other verbenas, last longer and are stacked on sturdy stems. I like Temari in combinations because it flowers a little later, and that synchronizes its flowering with other cultivars.


‘Unstoppable Fire’ begonia (15) is one variety in this excellent series, which itself is one of many begonia boliviensis series that are gaining popularity due to their exceptional performance in the greenhouse and the garden. Its bright colours take the shade quite nicely and it thrives in the sun. This is a good alternative to impatiens walleriana.


‘Phloxy Lady White’ (16) is one colour this series. Phloxy is a well-mounded series with excellent garden performance. All phlox should not be sold until later in the spring so it can show its potential at sales time. It will prove itself to the consumer and will be a longtime GR.


‘Lavender Stream’ (17) was one of my favourites in this year’s trials. It was in bloom when it was planted in early May and never stopped blooming. It features excellent breeding, displaying continuous flowering and vegetative growth at the same time. It is excellent in large containers alone, in combinations and in landscapes. Surprisingly, it does not shed its flowers as easily as other lobulerias. It is a GR, without a doub


‘Black Velvet Salmon’ (18) is a geranium that stands beautifully in landscapes or combinations due to its dark zoning and excellent growth habit. It recovers much better and faster than any zonal geranium after a rain and with much less botrytis.


Wave, Purple Classic and Purple Imp petunias (19) are GRs. I think the classic Purple Wave has a much nicer habit in the garden and the consumer counts on that performance. Breeders should not mess around with good garden performance traits to make it better for the growers. Earlier flowering or improved compactness would be better for growers, but consumer success is our priority.


‘Soleil Purple’ (20) is a tough petunia with small flowers. If I was going to rate petunia varieties on performance, Soleil would be my first choice. How many times have you seen “petunia” and “drought resistance” in the same sentence? Soleil is that variety! It also flowers a long time; you will see different generations of flowers at the same time, and all will be in good condition. ‘Soleil Purple’ is good for baskets and large containers, and is excellent in landscapes. Ask for it by name, because for some reason it is not promoted much by sales representatives.


‘Surfinia Baby Deep Purple’ (21) is a mounding habit petunia with loads of medium-size flowers. It is ideal in any basket and will enhance the look of the mix; there’s no risk of it overpowering the other varieties. I call this a true Combination Team Player (CTP).


‘Opera Supreme Pink Morn’ (22) looks great from three feet to as far as 30 feet away. It is bright and colourful, with an impressive mounding habit. It has excellent performance the entire summer and is one of the first petunias to recover after a heavy rain.


‘Mini Blast Rose’ (23) looks the same regardless of weather conditions. It looks great, is hardy and is self-cleaning. However, it’s best appreciated up close. At a distance, the flowers’ green edging and the leaves blend together … and the plant looks like a mass of leaves.


‘Supertunia Flamingo’ (24) is an excellent variety that fits in perfectly with the rest of the series. Very floriferous, it recovers quickly from rain and with no signs of botrytis. Fertilize with every watering and ‘Flamingo’ will look great the entire summer. It is good in containers and excellent in landscapes.


‘Surfinia Yellow’ (25) is one of the better yellow petunias. It holds its colour in the heat and has a good growth habit. It works well in container combinations and alone.


‘Peppy Lavender’ petunia (26) is distinctive. It has an excellent ratio of flowers to  vegetative growth, is resistant to botrytis, and recovers very well after a rain.


‘Minifamous Double Pink’ (27) ‘Cabaret White’ (28), ‘Calipetite White Imp’ (29) are top performing calibrachoas. They come with different flower types, ranging from double to the regular mounding habit to the very compact. With the diversification of calibrachoa varieties, we can customize our combinations and landscapes. All calibrachoas have exceptional performance and excellent show.


‘Dreamy Eyes Orange with Red Eye’ dahlia (30) is a bronze leaf plant with unstoppable flower power. ‘XXL Durango Yellow’ (31) is a green leaf dahlia variety with large flower heads. Both series do very well in large containers and combinations, and are definitely landscape winners.

The key to successful dahlia production is to have cuttings from a vegetative stock grown under long days with fresh young shoots. During propagation, the plants need to be in long days throughout the propagation period into April 10 in northern climates. Dahlia is excellent in landscapes with full sunlight or partial shade.


‘Sunpatiens Compact Red’ (32) and ‘Sunpatiens Spreading Pink Flash’ (33) are the new impatiens not susceptible to downy mildew, and yes, they can handle the shade. They come in compact, vigorous and spreading varieties. Sunpatiens should not be grown in packs; the most practical size is a 6” pot or gallon container. One Sunpatiens plant will cover the equivalent area of 12 regular walleriana impatiens, so cost-wise it is no different and the show is as good if not better. My choice would be the vigorous variety of Sunpatiens.


‘Velocity Blue’ (34) is a great salvia with dark stems and light green leaves. It is loaded with a mass of blue flowers. ‘Velocity Blue’ looks great the entire summer. Some deadheading will make the plant and the flowers look fresh. It is also excellent for landscape use, containers and in combination centres.


‘Tropical Yellow’ (35) is one colour in this canna series from seed that has excellent greenhouse and landscape performance. It has been in our trials for a number of years and I am always impressed with its growth and flowering performance. Many of the large combinations use the Tropical Canna as a centre.


‘Purple Fountain Grass’ (36) is not a new variety but is still the best of the annual grasses. It is an excellent plant in combinations as a centre plant and in landscapes. Certainly a GR, in my opinion.


‘Penta Rose’ (37) is a vegetative variety and one of three colours. It has excellent landscape performance and will grow well in shaded areas. Pentas attract hummingbirds and provide an excellent show throughout the summer. Plant pentas in late spring.


‘Exotic Patch Work’ (38) and ‘Xtreme Pink’ (39) display the effects of downy mildew disease that impacted a great many impatiens walleriana plantings in southern Ontario this summer. Yes, our trials are designed to look for the great performing varieties, but it’s also important we look at cultivars that do not perform well for the consumer so we do not set them up for failure.


Supertunia Vista (40) is an excellent series. Plants are as good as you display them, so be creative. This Vista tree is planted in Al’s Pouches from 105 plugs, laid on a steel frame and watered with a drip system. While our 2,200 trial varieties were on stands, one of our best attractions was definitely the petunia umbrella!

The trial pictures will be posted on my website. ■

Melhem Sawaya of Focus Greenhouse Management is a consultant and research coordinator to the horticultural industry. Comments on this or any other article are always welcome; please e-mail, or visit .

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