Each year seed companies bring out an array of new flowers and vegetables. Some actually are new to the market. Others are "new" only in the sense that they have just been added to a company's list. It takes familiarity with varieties to know the difference. And just because a plant is new, it isn't necessarily better than earlier models.
So before you discard old reliables for high-sounding strangers, read the descriptions closely to see whether a new flower really offers improvement in such categories as innovative color, hardier constitution, larger blossoms, more compact habit, or earlier and perhaps longer bloom.
Two plants I can vouch for personally, having tested them last year before their introduction, are Vinca Pretty in Rose and Gailladia pulchella Red Plume. Both are All America winners and will be generally available. The vinca's exceptionally bright and large blossoms turned in a never-say-die performance. Pick the dead flowers off Red Plume, and it too will bloom on and on. Its color and form (almost like a carnation) get the plant quick notice, while its foot-tall height perfectly suits it to container culture and front-of-the-border display.
Among my top choices of newcomers -- ones I'll be trying myself this year -- are the following:
*From Park: Antique Shades pansies in hues novel to the species, with plants tolerant to heat (a breakthrough, if they are); Blue Hawaii ageratum, whose vivid color impressed me at the Penn State trials last summer, where the plant received the highest rating; and Mini Marine heliotrope, touted for fragrance and densely flowered heads and also recommended as a winter houseplant.
*From Shepherd's, there's Rudeckia (black-eyed Susan) Rustic Colors, which broadens the color range of this rugged plant to bi-colors of chestnut, ruddy bronze and mahogany. Also from Shepherd's is Alaska nasturtium, a dwarf type unique for its extra small and variegated cream and green-striped foliage. The flowers are special, too, encompassing a wider mix of hues that now includes pink, rose and apricot.
*From Thompson and Morgan: dwarf Sonata cosmos, winner of a 1991 European Fleuroselect medal for its large pure-white flowers produced in profusion; Dapper dahlia, billed as exceptionally showy and early to bloom; Snow Crystals, the whitest alyssum yet; and Breakthrough nicotiana, a non-hybrid with hybrid assets of early flowering, compact growth and ultra-sweet fragrance.
*From Stokes: Scarlet Poncho coleus, (the red leaves edged in chartreuse), first in a new series of cascading coleuses suited to basket growing; and Ideal Dianthus, a 1991 Fleuroselect winner for its super tolerance to hot weather and 10 percent larger flower size.
*Worth mentioning too, for its standout performance in the Penn State trials, is semi-dwarf Liberty snapdragon. Even when pounded by rain, the sturdy 18- to 22-inch spikes loaded with large bright florets refused to bow down. Two sources for the seeds are Liberty and May.
Address for the companies named are: Park Seed, Cokesbury Road, Greenwood, S.C. 29647-0001; Shepherd's Garden Seeds, 30 Irene Street, Torrington, Conn. 06790: Thompson and Morgan Inc., P.O. Box 1308, Jackson, N.J. 08527; Stokes Seeds Inc., Box 548, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240; Liberty Seed Co., P.O. Box 806, New Philadelphia, Ohio 44663; and May Seed and Nursery Co., 208 N. Elm St., Shenandoah, Iowa 51603.