Tuesday evening, as I sat in the solitude of my Eastport home-away-from-home staring at a blank screen, racking a brain already frazzled from a day in the classroom, I received an e-mail from All-America Selections, or AAS, announcing early award winners for 2011. The message provided the needed fodder for this column as it brought back vivid memories of a past life.
As horticultural manager for George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C., between 1977 and 1986, I managed the annual flower and vegetable trial program, including the AAS section. We grew hundreds of flower and vegetable varieties, evaluating their performance through the long South Carolina summer. My responsibilities included germinating the seeds in a climate-controlled germination room, raising the transplants in the greenhouses, planting the transplants to more than 4 acres of raised beds, and evaluating the performance of each variety. It was the beginning of this gardener’s education.
Regulations for the AAS trials were (and still are) rigid. Each variety had to be planted in a block of 48 plants, typically on 12-inch spacing. We ran four rows of 12 plants for each variety, blocks of new entries growing side-by-side with the best of the old varieties. The AAS trials, incorporated into a much larger variety evalua-tion program, covered more than 3,000 square feet of raised beds, all drip-irrigated.
I remember my teachers. Lucy Smith, already 20 years on the job as propagation supervisor when I came on board, taught me everything she knew about germinating and transplanting seeds and about producing a hardy transplant in the greenhouse. I remember moving each batch of seedlings from the glass house to an open shed for hardening before going to the field. Old Tom Peterson taught me how to drive the tractor — a necessary skill neglected in the curriculum at Auburn University.
I remember my mentor, Klaus Neubner, a horticulturist without equal who also knew how to grow people. Together we moved the trial program away from the intensive use of chemicals, including soil sterilization every year with methyl bromide, to organic methods such as annual incorporation of cow manure in every bed. I spent a lot of time searching for local sources of weed-free manure and truckers to haul it.
In summer I walked the grassy paths between the beds, scouting for insect and disease problems, making notes on what to change next time around, tasting cherry tomatoes at will.
For 78 years, the AAS program has introduced the best of new flower and vegetable varieties to American gardeners. The highest number of AAS winners was 32 in 1934. In 1954 and 1976, only one variety won this recognition. Forty-nine varieties have won the most prestigious AAS Gold Medal.
For 2011, there are seven early award winners with promises of more to come in January. Let’s start with the three new vegetable varieties — a pumpkin and two cherry tomatoes.
‘Hijinks,’ defined as lively enjoyment and unrestrained fun, is an apt name for a pumpkin that offers loads of seasonal fun for kids — the perfect pumpkin for schoolyard gardens. This winning pumpkin variety produces 6- to 7-pound fruits that are uniform in size and shape with smooth deep orange skin and distinctive grooves, ideal for painting or carving. The strong, durable stem makes a great handle. Gardeners can expect high yields from ‘Hijinks,’ along with notable resistance to powdery mildew. Allow plenty of space in the garden for long vines that spread up to 15 feet.
“Lizzano” is a vigorous semideterminate tomato variety with a low-growing, trailing habit excellent for growing in patio containers or hanging baskets. In the garden, some staking will benefit plants that grow 16 to 20 inches tall with a compact spread of only 20 inches. Expect abundant yields of high-quality, bright red, 1-inch fruits. Judges noted better eating quality, yield and plant habit than comparisons. “Lizzano” is also tolerant of late blight, the plants lasting later into the growing season.
“Terenzo” is a high-yielding red cherry tomato with a tidy low-growing, trailing habit. The fruits, about 1¼ inches around, have a high sugar content. With a plant height of only 16 to 20 inches, this compact variety is suitable for growing in hanging baskets or containers as a patio tomato. An easy-to-grow determinate bush variety requiring little maintenance, ‘Terenzo’ produces fruits that are more resistant to cracking.
In spring 2011, home gardeners should find seed and transplants of these new varieties at local garden centers and in catalogs. Next week in this column: new flower varieties selected as AAS early winners for 2011.
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