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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Entries in new garden introductions (1)


When Plant Breeders Get it Right

The rhodo-azalea pictured above did not exist in my climate when I was a boy. In order to enjoy such a flower, it would have been necessary either to purchase a copy of National Geographic Magazine containing a photo essay on such plants or to arrange a visit to warmer regions of the USA. That the iridescent pink flowering shrub now blooms in my garden without winter protection is a botanical accomplishment for which I and other passionate cold climate gardeners are very grateful.

Once, it was almost impossible to successfully grow rhodos or azaleas in my area. The few homeowners that took on this challenge were restricted to only one mauve variety that required insulation against harsh winters. Fortunately, in the last 50 years, breeders have successfully developed many strains that survive a USDA Zone 4b winter, in a wide range of shades. Some of these colors are traffic-stopping.

Therefore, when the names of the yearly awards for annuals, perennials, vegetables, and shrubs are released and when some of my blogging colleagues begin, once again, to question the role of these plants in gardening, I come to the defense of the breeders. The new varieties are important even though there are many disappointing introductions among them. Some are not impressive and others have a short life. Nevertheless, there are a few successful ones each season. It is this paltry collection of new garden heroes that keeps me coming back for more, every year. Here are three reasons why:-

1] Let us first tackle the subject of breeding for the mere joy of owning a new color. Horticulture is a huge commercial enterprise, similar to the fashion industry. Every few years a flower may be introduced in a new shade so that gardeners can add something refreshing and different to their flowerbeds. In order to argue on behalf of those that celebrate newness, we need to acknowledge that gardening is not always about establishing a permanent installation. Some consider a garden to be an evolving, dynamic composition, subject to change at a gardener’s whim or when new varieties become available. Others like something new simply for the fun of it.

2] In their ongoing attempt to develop hardier species that survive colder climates, breeders play an essential role. Gardeners who pine for certain plants, but cannot grow them due to unfavorable climate conditions, are delighted when winter - hardy strains are introduced. Breeders do me a great service when they develop a hardier strain of a desired plant that will survive a USDA 4b winter.

3] Breeders contribute to our enjoyment when they successfully eliminate the messiness of a flower or reduce the voluminousness of the species. Many garden professionals are mandated to plant only those varieties that grow neatly because few clients have a desire to care for their plants. Most homeowners expect a continuity and reliability of the garden’s initially clean image. Disciplined and stature-diminished plants extend the boundaries of our design palette, especially for urban landscapes, thus giving us more raw materials to work with.

Unfortunately, in the process of meeting market needs, compromises are necessary and consequently, a few new introductions will occasionally disappoint. Some plants lose their fragrance when they are breed for hardiness or shrink in height and volume when tweaked for neatness. Invariably, a new variety bred for color might lose its hardiness, longevity, or vigor.

However, if a plant delivers what I need to make my gardens look better, without compromising reliability, I don’t allow myself to become sentimental about what it has lost in the transformation. Instead, I focus on what I have gained in creative materials and how my clients have benefited from me having a wider selection of impressive plants to work with. That is when I rejoice in the newly expanded collection of plants, because, in gardening, there is no such thing as too much pleasure.