This time of year a standout perennial plant in my garden is Gaillardia, also known as Blanket Flower.
The reason it is called Blanket Flower is because it blooms so profusely that it looks as though the plant is blanketed in blooms. I can live with that.
In my garden, Gaillardia is typically pale rust colored with darker throats on each petal. The daisy-like blooms are evidence of its family; sunflowers, asters and other plants with blossoms that resemble a child's drawing of the sun.
Although my Gaillardia is typical, there are many other varieties that aren't, including a variety called Fanfare, bred by Richard Read, that has yellow trumpet-shaped petals that spread out at the very tips into tiny fans, giving the plant a sense of the tropics even though it is hardy to our zone 5.
A Gaillardia series, ''Commotion,'' hybridized by Skagit Gardens in Mount Vernon, Washington, boasts varieties with names like Tizzy and Frenzy. Tizzy blossoms are deep tones of red, rose and copper that transforms to various shades of orange by summer's end. Tizzy has more than the average number of funnel-shaped blossoms per flower of a deep russet color.
A new hybrid Gaillardia, 'Mesa Yellow,'' was recently named an All-America Selections Winner for 2010. Touted as the ''first hybrid blanket flower with a controlled plant habit,'' Mesa Yellow was bred by the PanAmerican Seed Company. All America Selections claims this plant will not only recover quickly from the effects of wind and rain, but it blooms two to three weeks earlier than other Gaillardia.
'Mesa Yellow' reaches only 20 to 22 inches, making it more compact than its three-feet tall cousins. Yet even though common Gaillardia does get rather tall, I've never had a problem with plants falling over. (In my garden, that trait is left to fall mums that I neglected to trim in June, so they fall in all directions leaving the center of the plant exposed. I could tie them up in a bundle and tie the bundle to a stake, but I hate that even more, so they sprawl all around their visible crown while I admonish myself for not taking the time to do any June pruning). But even the common Gaillardia stand tall in my garden, where they enjoy full sun and pretty much don't ask for much except an occasional deadheading. These tall, long-stemmed flowers are great for cutting and bringing indoors to decorate a late summer, early fall table setting.
Gaillardia isn't the only flowering plant that made the cut with All-America Selections. A new variety of snapdragon bred by HEM Genetics, called Twinny Peach, is named for its double flowers. If you can picture a double flowering snapdragon, you might not realize it is a snapdragon at all because it seems to be missing the jointed petals that as children, we would slip on our fingers and pretend they could talk.
It is a pretty little plant that bears flowers all along its spiky stems. There are other double flowering snapdragons, but Twinny Peach is described by AAS Winners as the first double flowering with a compact growth habit. The description claims the plant reaches just under 12-inches tall, making it a cute little front border plant. Snapdragons love full sun, and although we grow them as annuals here, they are known to withstand a few pretty good frosts, so don't count them out at the end of the season. Its name, Twinny Peach, speaks for itself when it comes to blossom shades, but the photo looks as though the flower color is a mixture of deep apricot and pale peach. That contrasted with the green foliage would be quite a nice addition to the garden border.
The third AAS Winner is a pale blue Viola with the name, ''Endurio Sky Blue Martien,'' bred by Syngenta Flowers Inc. I have never planted viola on purpose in my garden because I have so many wild volunteers. My violas are dark blue and are not only dispersed throughout the gardens, but fairly blanket the farthest section in the back lawn in May when they are in bloom. The wild violas are dark purple, but Endurio Sky Blue Martien is pale, nearly blue but still a bit lavender, with the tiniest of yellow throats. They grow to six-inches in height and bloom from spring to mid-summer. Violas are perennials and although my wild flowers spread lavishly throughout the yard, I can't say whether this variety is invasive, not having grown it. By the way, invasive is, after all, in the eye of beholder.
The last AAS Winner is an interesting Zinnia with the name, 'Zahara Starlight Rose,' bred by PanAmerican Seed Co. I happen to be a big fan of zinnias, having grown up with them in my grandmother's and mother's gardens as a child, but I believe this is the first with unusual rose and white bi-colored petals. I can picture a mound of this summer annual peeking over stones in an alpine garden or nestled against the silvery leaves of Dusty Miller Artemesia. The plant is 12 to 14 inches tall and has a compact, mounded growth habit.
Surprisingly, this year there are no vegetables on the AAS Winners list for 2010. I have no doubt there will be favorites among growers, but we'll have to wait a while to see what next year might bring to our vegetable gardens.
But for the flowers, on the AAS and National Garden Bureau Web sites, the 2010 winners aren't yet shown. You could say you saw it here first, but if you type in each individual plant by variety name in your search engine, you should be able to see photos of these plants already available from various retailers.
It's never too early to start planning next year's gardens.