How I Spent My Spring Break

How I Spent My Spring Break

Geez Louise! I could have been playing in the garden, lobbing a softball on the old ballpark or just lazing around on spring break. But oh no, I got a note from Kate Santos at Costa Farms near Miami, Fla. She asked if I would help judge the outdoor trials.

I had never been to Costa, but did I really want to judge more annuals when we’ll be judging thousands of our own at the University of Georgia? I waffled a while longer and thought, “I know I will learn something.” Lots of room remaining in this Swiss cheese brain of mine, after all, so there I was on a plane to Miami to help make the world a better plant place for my daughters.  

First Impressions
Good for Costa Farms! They have made serious time and space commitments. This is not something they have to do. Heck, most growers have no ideas and no concern what their plants look like when they leave the bench. And let’s not forget the money! Costa hired two fantastic young ladies, Kate Santos and Angelica Cretu, to manage the trials–and they are making Costa proud.

They have created a lovely setting, but more importantly, a very credible trial ground. And they even bring in guest judges–veterans like Doug Jimerson from Better Homes and Gardens in Iowa and Heather Will-Brown from Disney World in Orlando.

So there we were in beautiful Homestead, Fla.–clipboard in hand, hat and sunglasses in place–like gladiators off to fight the lions in the noonday heat. Emperor Kate blew the whistle, and away we went. Kate and Angelica had everything ready for us, and their work made our efforts like a walk in the park.

My Observations

The plants went in the garden approximately week 45, and we were evaluating on week 11 (March 15). So they had gone through a Homestead winter–not exactly Kalamazoo–but nevertheless a real-world Florida-style winter.

There had been some cold nights (mid to high 30s) and not too many hot days (greater than 80 degrees). We evaluated the plants on many criteria, and while this was just a snapshot in time (Kate and Angelica take data throughout the season), here are my impressions about plants that caught my eyes. That a plant is not listed does not mean it is not good, but simply that on this day, others stood out more.

We all wondered then if we would see some of these great plants at the California Spring Trials, and if and how the breeders would market them.

Allan’s Picks

Alcea ‘Spring Celebrities Lemon’ (American Takii): Terrific upright habit, flowers not hid by the foliage, no rust or mildew.

Argyranthemum. Two exceptional argys caught my eye: ‘Beauty Yellow’ (Westflowers) and my old-time favorite, ‘Flutterby Yellow’ (Ecke Ranch), which is the best of the best.

Caladium. I know little about caladiums but oh my, nearly all the caldiums from Classic Caladium Co. looked outstanding.  
Capsicum. Few many peppers were on display in this trial, but I was taken by an upright form with golden fruit, ‘Rio’, from Takii. It’s very different and eye catching.

Coleus. I did not see anything too new and nothing that blew me away–an unusual non-occurrence for coleus. I was still impressed with the old trailer ‘Burgundy Wedding Train’ (Ecke), even though it is not new and not in the least bit sexy. Still, what a great plant for combination planters and baskets!

Erysimum. I just don’t know why we are not jumping on the wallflower wagon. There’s great breeding and good performance .Yes, it will not be a colorful summer annual, but for this time of year, they are hard to beat. The variegated ‘Fragrant Star’ (Aris Horticulture) was performing exceptionally well, just getting ready to flower.

Gaillardia. ‘Gallo Yellow Trumpet’ (Aris) was fantastic, with large colorful flowers.

Gazania. At this time of year in this climate, there is definitely a place for basket flowers. Some great introductions, with large flowers and disease-free plants, were on display. I really liked the New Day series, particularly ‘New Day Bronze,’ while ‘Sunbathers Sunset’ (Ecke) was the best of all.

Geranium: So many geraniums, so few standouts. One of the surprises to me was the excellent performance of the not-so-new Pinto series. ‘Pinto Scarlet’ (Syngenta Flowers) stood out. A couple of new entries from PAC Elsner are ‘Darko Deep Red’ and ‘Candy Colors Bicolor,’ both of which certainly caught my eye.
Of course, you are tired of hearing me extol the virtues of ‘Caliente Orange’ (Syngenta), but it is the best of the best.

Lobelia. It’s a good time of year for lobelias. ‘Hot Waterblue Imp’ (Westflowers), and ‘Techno Heat Upright Light Blue’ (Syngenta) looked very good.

New Guinea impatiens. Like a worn-out record, I keep repeating myself: The SunPatiens (Sakata) series are quite exceptional, and once again, they proved their value at Costa. I particularly like the Compact series. For the most impressive plants with the largest flowers, you will be hard pressed to beat the Magnum series (Dömmen). Fire and Peach take your breath away.

Lobularia. What a plant I found! Giga White from Benary is outstanding.

Osteospermum. Each year, like the argys, they get better. Even though there was no significant sapping heat, I can say that the breeding with the cape daisies has come miles. Ecke has some of the best with ‘Crescendo Yellow’ and ‘Crescendo Dawn Blush,’ but Ball is making strides with ‘Serenity 1999 Pink,’ ‘3D Daisy Silver’ and ‘Ballerina Pink.’

Petunia. If ever one genus continues to reinvent itself, it is the petunia. There’s lots of eye candy at Costa. My favorite, without a doubt, was ‘Littletunia Sweet Pink,’ followed by ‘Littletunia Ultra Purple’ (Ecke). I also was most impressed with ‘Whispers Star Rose’ (Syngenta).

Everyone is breeding excellent petunias. ‘Sweetunia Blueberry Ice’ from Dömmen was excellent; Westflowers has ‘Perfectunia Purple’ and ‘Perfectunia White'; ‘Supertunia Lavender Skies’ from Proven Winners, ‘Fortunia Purple Picotee’ from Fides and ‘Famous Violet Picotee’ from Ball Horticultural Co. round out the winners.

Phlox. Everyone, including me, was impressed with ‘Phloxy Lady Pink’ from Dömmen. The ‘Phloxy Lady White’ was only a tad behind.

Scaevola. Westflowers brought ‘Top Pot Blue’ and the bicolor ‘Diamond’ to the trials. They both looked very good.

Verbena. ‘Royal Chambray’ from Proven Winners could be seen from across the trials, and I was also pleased to see an upright verbena, ‘Lanai Upright Rose with Eye’ (Syngenta), make an appearance. It’s very interesting.

Viola. There are lots of pansies and violas from which to choose–the best was the Plentiful series (Ball), particularly ‘Plentiful Yellow.’ I was taken with the colors and performance of ‘Ultra Radiance Red’ (Sakata), and the Sorbet series, particularly Raspberry and ‘Blueberry Swirl (PAS).

I could think of better ways to spend my spring break, but not many. Kudos to Costa for investing the time, space and money into this most important transition between industry and consumer. I recommend a visit. Kate and Angelica will only be getting better at this, so get there soon.

Allan Armitage is a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia, Athens, Ga. He can be reached at

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