Was there ever a more pleasant task for the gardener than curling up in an armchair on a dreary winter evening to dream and pick among the latest floral offerings in garden catalogs?
Every year an abundance of sparkling blooms makes its appearance, giving a sweet come-hither from glossy color pages.
There are several trends evident in the lineups for spring. Most pronounced is a renewed interest in annuals, such as marigolds, zinnias and morning glories, which have been out of the limelight in recent years while gardeners were infatuated with perennial borders.
While annuals may have been disparaged, they are now valued for offering quick results, a long bloom season and flexible color and design arrangements from year to year.
Magenta, once considered a declasse color in the garden, is making a splash this year, and blue, that oh-so-elusive hue, continues its strong attraction.
Enchanting hardy versions of the most delicate of blossoms -- the orchid -- are becoming more widely available. Daylilies are showier, with several exciting tetraploid hybrids and an emphasis on both compact and taller plants.
Among new annuals, marigold 'Bonanza Bolero' is a distinctive deep gold, 2 1/2 -inch bloom splashed with sassy lipstick red. It's a 1999 All America Selection (AAS), having received high marks all around in the field trial program. The bushy, 10-inch-tall plants flower in 45 to 50 days from sowing and should be widely available at garden centers this spring.
African marigold 'Snowball' has dazzling, creamy white 3-inch blooms on 24-inch upright stems. Its free-flowering habit should make it an excellent cut flower as well as a happy companion to temper brighter colors in the border, such as the new zinnias, 'Profusion Orange' and 'Profusion Cherry.'
Among new climbers, morning glory 'Minibar Rose' is a striking introduction with variegated foliage and crimson-rose flowers with a white throat and edge. At 8 feet, it has shorter vines that should prove comfortably manageable in smaller spaces, or make a robust addition to hanging baskets.
Another AAS winner is perennial Kniphofia, a k a red-hot poker, 'Flamenco,' which flowers the first year from seed in multihued shades of orange, yellow, cream and red. At a sturdy 30 inches tall, it should also make a dandy cut flower.
Gardeners can also look for Phlox drummondi 'Unique Mix' to provide a refreshingly cool, muted palette of peach, cream, lemon, salmon and misty blue in the garden with 8- to 10-inch plants that can withstand summer heat and keep on blooming.
Judging by many of this year's releases, the gardener would be astonished to learn that not so very long ago the colors magenta and cerise were considered too showy for the well-bred flower border. How times change!
Anyone who has previously harbored a secret fondness for these assertive colors can rejoice at the introduction of varieties such as New Guinea impatiens 'Java Lilac Flame,' a rosy purple certain to add pizazz to any shady location, and aster 'Wild Romance,' a compact plant (2 feet) with vivid, cherry-pink flowers from August through October.
Another do-not-miss in this color group is petunia 'Rose Wave,' a sure knockout in hanging baskets with its low-growing, spreading habit: 6 inches tall by up to 5 feet across. My own pick is the drought-tolerant portulaca, 'Sundial Peach,' with double, 2-inch, lusciously hot coral blossoms.
Not to be outdone, there is an exciting newcomer to the largely pastel-hued calla lilies, though somewhat more refined. 'Black Forest' is a rich, deep, cabernet verging on black at the throat, as elegant as they come.
Virtually impossible to ignore is clematis 'Blue Light,' a heavily doubled, free-flowering, lavender-blue stunner that brings to mind a cross between a peony and a waterlily. It is extremely winter hardy (as far as Zone 2), and at 6 feet would made a handsome addition to any size garden or sunny balcony.
Blue flower fans will also welcome viola 'Fama Blue Angel' with its characteristic pansy face in navy blue, surrounded by a white halo and pastel blue petals.
Gentian 'Sapphire Blue,' a hardy perennial from White Flower Farm, forms a carpet of dark green foliage with 10-inch-tall, heavenly blue flowers from August to October when little else is blooming.
Readers seeking hardy orchids or native plants should note the addition of two improved lady's slippers. Our own native yellow Cypripedium parviflorum, which blooms in May and June on 18-inch stems, is available as nursery-propagated stock from White Flower Farm.
An unusual, lavender pink lady's slipper, C. macranthos from Russia, is being offered for the first time by the Great Plant Co. And Wayside Gardens is presenting 'Snow Rice-Cake Plant,' a jack-in-the-pulpit relative with an extraordinary, burgundy-veined hood over a pristine white interior, and wide, tropical-looking leaves perfect for the woodland garden.
Several promising daylilies are also making a debut this year.
Twenty-eight-inch-tall 'El Desperado,' with deep-yellow, 4 1/2 -inch flowers with a burgundy eye zone and picotee edge to match, will please Hemerocallis buffs desiring a late- season extender. For those who prefer an all-season bloomer, there is 'Charlotte Devillier,' a tetraploid of similar coloring, having golden-yellow blossoms with a maroon eye. 'Marjorie Anne,' an evergreen tetraploid from Louisiana Nursery, caught my interest since it is said to bloom for up to five months. It is a soft rose pink with a yellow flushed throat.
If you are looking for a smaller daylily for the front of a border, 'Hamilton Clair' is a tidy 16-incher in ruffled white with a claret eye and a high bud count for a long and showy bloom period. It would be superb backed by 'Sudan Night,' with impressive, dark grape-purple recurved petals with cream edging and a light green throat.
Not to be forgotten is 'Botanical Beauty,' an intriguing, deep-purple, spider-type daylily reputed to reach 60 inches tall, with flowers 10 inches across.
At last -- a daylily I can really see eye to eye with.
WHERE TO GET THEM
Most of the varieties listed in this article can be obtained from the following sources:
* Gilbert H. Wild & Sons, P.O. Box 338, Sarcoxie, Mo. 64862; 888-449-4537
* Great Plant Co., Box 1041, New Hartford, Conn. 06057; 800-441-9788
* Harris Seeds, 60 Saginaw Drive, P.O. Box 22960, Rochester, N.Y. 14692; 800-514-4441
* J.W. Jung Seed Co., 335 S. High St., Randolph, Wis. 53957-0001; 800-297-3123
* Louisiana Nursery, 5853 Highway 182, Opelousas, La. 70570; 318-948-3696
* Niche Gardens, 1111 Dawson Road, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27516; 919-967-0078
* Park Seed Co., 11 Parkton Ave., Greenwood, S.C. 29647; 800-845-3369
* W. Atlee Burpee Co., 300 Park Ave., Warminster, Pa., 18974; 800-888-1447
* Van Bourgondien Bros., 245 Route 109, P.O. Box 1000, Babylon, N.Y. 11702; 800-622-9997
* Wayside Gardens, 1 Garden Lane, Hodges, S.C. 29695; 800-845-1124
* White Flower Farm, P.O. Box 50, Litchfield, Conn. 06759-0050; 800-503-9624
Pub Date: 02/07/99