Life for a gardener keeps getting better every year.
In the 1970s, we were lucky to have pink and purple petunias, white and red geraniums, yellow marigolds and blue phlox. Flowering tobacco, butterfly bush and scabiosa were as futuristic to the gardener as a computer was to the office worker.
Now every year brings the arrival of more plants, some new introductions from faraway tropical places, other new hybrids from old-fashioned varieties.
It's fun and exciting to browse the catalogs and shop the garden centers in search of the recent 'Impulse Pink Picotee' impatiens or the 'Tidal Wave' cherry petunia.
It also, however, turns confusing when the market keeps releasing so many plants. Your "want list" tugs at your time and gardening space as you try to decide between the 'Stardust Orchid' vinca and the 'Cosmic Orange' cosmos, each an All-America Selection for 2000 and each stunning in its own right.
Careful planning and careful choices are key. Know if your gardening space needs sun- or shade-loving plants. Know what kind of growth your soil can support.
Or, throw caution to the wind and try anything and everything. What fails this year is the motivation to chance a 2001 debut.
Here are just a few of the many new varieties available as seeds or bedding plants through your favorite garden center and mail-order catalog:
* Pentas, 'Butterfly' series: Huge flower heads of tiny star-shaped flowers and fine foliage. Thrives in heat and sun; blooms continuously. This tender tropical perennial grows 10-22 inches tall and 10-26 inches wide. Colors in new series include cherry-red, deep pink, lavender and a mix. Loved by butterflies.
* Calendula, 'Fiesta Gitana': A member of the daisy family, this calendula variety comes in orange and yellow shades with many bicolors. It's compact, early flowering and fully double. Common name is pot marigold. It's a good cut flower that likes cool weather, says Dave Bankes, professor of horticulture at Christopher Newport University in southeastern Virginia. Give it full sun, good drainage and lots of mulch to prevent it from drying out.
* Abutilon, 'Bella Mix': Commonly known as flowering maple or Chinese lantern, abutilon produces showy, bell-shaped flowers. 'Bella Mix' comes in pastel colors; use the plants in containers in partial shade or as indoor flowering houseplants. Blooms even when temperatures soar.
* Nicotiana, 'Saratoga': One of the showiest of all annuals, flowering tobacco is covered with short, sticky hairs. The flowers, which attract hummingbirds, appear in clusters at the ends of stems. Flowering tobacco is easy to start from seed, beginning indoors in early spring; transplant outdoors when frost danger is past because the plant likes warm weather. Sun gives best flowering; tolerates partial shade. Makes good container plant; flowers forever. The 'Saratoga' series comes in deep rose, lime, purple bicolor, red, white and a mixture.
* Sunflower, 'Ikarus': Everyone loves a sunflower, especially birds and bees. And there are dozens and dozens of new varieties appearing, including 'Ikarus.' It's 48 inches tall, making it perfect for the home garden. Multiple branches produce 4- to 6-inch lemon-yellow flowers with dark centers. 'Ikarus' makes a great cut flower. This year's All-America Selections collection also includes a new sunflower called 'Soraya,' which produces orange petals and chocolate-brown centers.
* Begonia, 'Queen' series: Begonias like full sun, but adapt to light shade. Their rounded, compact look gives a garden a formal look, says Bankes. Group them in rows, masses and circles. Their foliage in bronze, glossy green and variegated forms is as attractive as their summer-long blooms. They are carefree because they need no deadheading. Feed them regularly for good growth. Begonias also grow well as houseplants in bright light. The 'Queen' series, with its vigorous spreading habit, is the first seed-produced Begonia semperflorens with double roselike blossoms. Available in white, red and pink
* Impatiens, 'Infinity' series: Known as the best flowering annual for shade, impatiens come in single and double flowers. They need high fertility and moist soil; use them generously in large containers. The new 'Infinity' series features large, flat, round petals and consistent seed quality; they are prolific reseeders, meaning you get additional impatiens every year.
Other gardening favorites appearing with new stars include Cramer's 'Amazon' celosia with burgundy and bright green foliage; 'Dazzler Rose Star' impatiens with a 24-color series and eye-catching star markings; dwarf 'Sunspot' marigold in gold, lemon and orange; 'Serenity' mix verbena in an assortment of pastel lavenders, white, carmine-red and pink; and the 'Jewel' series of heat-tolerant violas in a two-shaded deep blue.
For more information on new flowering and vegetable varieties, visit the National Garden Bureau online at www.ngb.org/.