Approximately 60 varieties were trialed in 2016 at Gateway Technical College and the Pike Creek Horticulture Center in Kenosha, WI. This year’s trials included cut flowers and an increased number of vegetable trials. Southeast Wisconsin enjoyed a reasonably mild, but steadily cold winter, through March of 2016. Consistent low temperatures through April kept plants, and customers, dormant almost until May. April and May were cool and wet as usual, which kept pansies, alyssum, and other cool-season annuals thriving, but delayed the planting of warm-season plants. Temperatures in southeast Wisconsin were moderate all summer, with only a few days in August breaking the 90 degree mark. Wisconsin had heavy rains and cool temperatures in spring, followed by drought conditions in July and August. High rainfall and humidity in late August, combined with heavy soils, saw some species like tomato, petunias, and melons crashing early. Night temperatures in the 50s, beginning in late August, signaled that the season might end early.
Field Trial Manager Kathleen Field’s Comments on Top-Performing Plants
Best in Show: Petunia ‘Night Sky’
A few of these plants began blooming in our greenhouse in mid-April, a couple weeks before they really should go outside. Two weeks later, we were sold out of every plant, blooming or not, and only wished we had more. Our growing season was tough on petunias; a very dry summer and later on warm and humid with heavy downpours. ‘Night Sky’ was up to the challenge and continued to bloom with intact foliage through September. The speckled pattern is not entirely stable and is more pronounced in shadier sites. In full sun, the white pattern becomes larger. A flower or two on plants reverted to all blue.
Consumer Favorite: Celosia ‘Dragon’s Breath’
Everyone wants something new and with this plant you can use the same plant to get two new looks. In full sun, the entire plant is a dark-red color, including the flower spikes. In shadier situations, the leaves grow much larger and have a two-toned red and pink appearance. Heat and drought tolerant, these plants take a while to get going, but once the heat and humidity hit, they were stars of the show. ‘Dragon’s Breath’ was beautiful as thrillers in containers or planted in beds and was a real standout with its robust size and color.
Best Vegetable: Cucumber ‘Martini’
An unusual white-skinned cucumber with a very juicy and crisp texture. The cucumber plant itself stood up against humidity and was a heavy producer. Severe cucumber beetle pressure this year stalled out other varieties but ‘Martini’ kept going. Cucumber beetles did mar the fruit and the skin was a bit tough, but when peeled they had excellent texture and flavor.
Best Cut Flower: Stokesia ‘Mel’s Blue’
A beautiful shade of blue, this plant started blooming in early July and hasn’t stopped yet. Planted from nice size bare roots, it grew into a sturdy plant with flowers of excellent weatherability.
Begonia benariensis ‘Experimental 1620-AT1’
Hybrid begonias have taken the place of Impatiens in many plans with the introduction of Downy Mildew. The Whopper and Big series have gained our favor for several years by producing amazingly sturdy and beautiful plants covered in flowers. With glossy, dark-green leaves on an 18-inch mounded plant, this begonia is great for massing in beds and borders or used in a container. Its flower is a pale, strawberry-pink with darker edges and sepals, which could give it a bicolor look. Plants hold up amazingly well under stress, including full sun, drought, and heavy rain. A week of intense heat, humidity, and heavy downpours didn’t affect these plants at all. While petunias, tomatoes, and other plants crashed hard and fast, the Whopper begonias came through unscathed and thriving well into fall.
Verbena peruviana ‘Endurascape Pink’
This is the first verbena in our trials to even survive the season, much less look good. Plants in Wisconsin have to endure cold, wet spring weather followed by heat, humidity, heavy soil, and inconsistent moisture. This bicolor pink verbena performed beautifully in spite of it all.
Argyranthemum ‘Grandessa White’
Low growing, covered with pure-white flowers all summer to fall, ‘Grandessa White’ is a fine textured, flowering groundcover. When planted in cool spring, it blooms until fall.
Gaillardia ‘Mesa Red’
‘Mesa Red’ had beautiful mounds of bright red flowers and was heat and drought tolerant.
Zinnia marylandica ‘Zahara XL White, ‘Zahara XL Fire,’ ‘Zahara XL Pink,’ and ‘Zahara XL Yellow’
Zahara can’t be beat for heat and drought tolerance and freedom from disease. The White and Yellow of this series kept their color throughout the season, while Fire and Pink started to fade. The faded look was still pretty and appeared bicolor.