Published on 09/27/18

This summer's best plants shine in Trial Gardens' Classic City Awards

By Merritt Melancon

Georgia summers can be tough on landscape plants. That's why the University of Georgia Trial Gardens wait until the end of the summer to release its annual list of best-performing varieties. 

Each year the gardens’ staff recognizes the plants that best weathered Georgia’s heat and humidity with the Trial Gardens’ Classic City Awards. This year, after a soggy start to the summer and a very dry end, the staff selected 12 plants that were tougher than most, said Brandon Coker, manager of the gardens.

In addition to being a place to showcase new plants for the gardening public, the gardens serve an important purpose in the research and development of new ornamental varieties.

The facility provides variable, real-world conditions for testing new varieties developed by commercial nurseries and academic breeders. This testing provides third-party, verified data for consumers, retailers and plant breeders.

Trial plants are planted every spring and are watched carefully throughout the summer to determine which plants will make the cut and be sold to Southeastern gardeners the following season.

Each summer presents its own unique challenges, and this year, the season provided a mix of abundant rain followed by almost no rain at all.  

“This year we had heat quick in the season, and then during the month of May, it rained 18 days straight. I just knew everything was going to die, and we would be left with just a bunch of weeds in the garden,” Coker said. “But thankfully, these plants were so strong, the vast majority pulled through fine.” 

The staff did have to be diligent about watering the plants during the second half of the summer. 

When searching for Classic City Award winners, Coker said he looks for plants that can still wow him, and the gardens’ visitors, between bloom cycles. 

“Some of the standout groupings of plants this year were coleus, calibrachoa, salvia and geranium,” Coker said. “Each of those four groups had an assortment of very high ratings. But in the end, the plants that we choose to win the Classic City Awards are the plants that give us the most beauty over our very long growing season.”

For full descriptions of this year’s Classic City Award winners and information on next year’s trials, visit

This year’s award winners include:

Begonia ‘Canary Wings,’ Ball Ingenuity

‘Canary Wings’ is a novel shade-loving begonia that brought bright and vibrant color to shady spots with chartreuse leaves and bright red flowers. It’s an exceptional plant for both containers and in-ground plantings.

Calibrachoa Superbells ‘Holy Smokes!,’ Proven Winners

With white petals and what seems to be watercolor-like purple/blue swatches and yellow centers, ‘Holy Smokes!’ looked great all summer. It maintained a mounding habit throughout spring and summer that made it without a doubt one of the showiest flowering plants in the gardens.

Calibrachoa Lia ‘White,’ Danziger

The Calibrachoa Lia ‘White’ sets the bar for other calibrachoas with its nearly perfect shape as it has been in full bloom for months. Medium-sized pure white petals with yellow throats make a great addition to containers or hanging baskets and helps all the other colors pop.    

Echinacea Sombrero ‘Tres Amigos,’ Darwin Perennials

In the gardens, Echinacea Sombrero ‘Tres Amigos’ transitioned through three distinct colors that emerged from peachy-coral to rose and finished with a hint of burgundy. These colors look like something from a book or movie, but they are real. The plants perform well in full sun and can take drier soil conditions.

Euphorbia Crystal White, Green Fuse Botanicals

Euphorbia is a well-known landscape plant, especially in hot parts of the country where it thrives. Crystal White has a desirable shape that’s about half the size of other popular varieties on the market. Only about a foot tall it packs a punch with flower production and has very tight branching. The plant first bloomed in April and was still in full bloom in early September.

Gaillardia SpinTop, ‘Red Starburst,’ Dummen Orange

The flowers on Gaillardia SpinTop ‘Red Starburst’ exude color with their red centers that burst into a red/orange and finish with bright yellow tips. This plant would make an excellent border plant or container planting.

Impatiens New Guinea Harmony Radiance ‘Hot Pink,’ Danziger

Hot pink is a vast understatement; something more like ‘Hot Hot Hot Pink’ is better suited to Impatiens New Guinea Harmony Radiance ‘Hot Pink.’ This plant was grown in a location getting no more than four hours of sun in the morning, and it is thriving. This plant will light up the dark corners of mature landscapes with exceptional color.    

Pelargonium Calliope ‘Large Rose Mega Splash,’ Syngenta Flowers

This plant is a showy pink geranium with rose starbursts at the center of the flowers. In containers, hanging baskets or in-ground plantings, ‘Large Rose Mega Splash’ produces flowers non-stop through the Georgia summer heat. It bested all of the geraniums this year, and it has maintained excellent disease resistance.

Petunia Dekko ‘Star Coral,’ Syngenta Flowers

‘Star Coral’ topped the gardens’ list of petunias this year simply because it has bloomed the longest and had the best overall shape. The hot pink coral-colored blooms have a touch of white in the petals that gives them a dramatic coloration.

Portulaca Hot Shots ‘Tangerine Glow,’ Green Fuse Botanical

The Portulaca Hot Shots ‘Tangerine Glow’ is in a league of its own in terms of overall interest. The gardens’ planting of ‘Tangerine Glow’ took over an area 6 foot long by 3 foot wide, displaying bright tangerine blooms with scorching yellow centers that open in the morning and close in the afternoon.

Salvia Skyscraper ‘Pink,’ Selecta

This salvia produced flowers with pale magenta calyx followed by a bright pink corolla that emerged to tower over the lush dark green foliage on this unique cultivar.

Solenostemon ColorBlaze ‘Torchlight,’ Proven Winners

Torchlight’ has superior qualities in every way, from its lush storybook like green with red and hot pink-veined leaves to its seemingly indestructible growth habit. This plant is also very responsive to trimming. Every time the gardens’ staff pruned the plants, the new leaves came back with increased color.

Merritt Melancon is a public relations manager with UGA's Terry College of Business and previously served as a public relations coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and UGA Extension.

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