July 31 was the perfect summer day for looking at beautiful gardens and new plants at the Ball Customer Appreciation Day last week. Ball Horticulture is one of the largest and oldest plant breeders and marketers in the world and we are fortunate to have them close by in West Chicago, Illinois. Each July they open their private trial gardens to their customers which include professional plant growers from all over the world. New this year was a ‘pick your favorites’ system where participants could select three of their favorite plants by attaching a sticker to the plant sign. Certainly this was a difficult decision but it was even more interesting to see what everyone selected. First on the list, with the most votes as far as I could see, was the Begonia x tuberhybrida or Rex Begonia ‘Jurassic Silver Swirl’ It is one of a series that includes ‘Green Streak, ‘Pink Shades’, Silver Point’ and ‘Watermelon’. ‘Silver Swirl’ seems very similar to a past Rex Begonia known as ‘Escargot’.They were all beautiful and grow well in deep shade. The best use of these begonias is probably in containers for shady sites such as a covered patio or north facing porch. They also make fantastic indoor foliage plants although they will need quite a bit more light
The next most popular favorite was the Hydrangea macrophylla ‘L.A. Dreamin’ by Ball Ornamentals. Hardy to zone 5a with a height and spread of 48″ this hydrangea is marketed as having both blue and pink flowers on the same plant without the use of any special fertilizer treatments and is reblooming. An explosion in hydrangea breeding over the past ten years has resulted in plants with the large colorful flowers that consumers have come to love without any of the floppiness of ‘grammas’ peegee hydrangeas. Hydrangeas are also appreciated for their ability to bloom in part shade but they also need good soil moisture and not at all drought tolerant. With so many new hydrangeas to choose from it really is important to trial some of these in your own environment to see which ones really are winter hardy and how best to prune them to encourage reblooming. While L.A. Dreamin’ was interesting I personally was more intrigued by some of the very dwarf hydrangea maturing at 36″. Seems like I’m always always looking for a colorful shrub to fit under a window, especially in partial shade.
Celosia argentea ‘Intenz Dark Purple’ was another popular choice among attendees. These really do have intense coloration which glowed in the sun and heat of the day. This annual is available as unrooted cutting or liners only and will bloom throughout summer and fall. Celosia are becoming increasingly popular both as a drought tolerant, sturdy summer annual but also as a fall accent plant. The dark reds, yellows and golds of celosia seem to be replacing the traditional fall garden mum especially in fall patio planters. With Celosia’s long bloom cycle, drought tolerance and vibrant colors I can see why.
A couple of my favorites in no particular order include Echinacea x hybrida ‘Sombrero Salsa Red’
Petunia ‘Shocking Touch’
I also enjoyed the various ‘theme’ gardens including the ‘small space garden’ display featuring ideas for growing vegetables in containers. Hanging baskets of cucumbers and strawberries were fun and bearing well. Lots of different compact tomatoes in containers being trialed with fruit ranging from grape and cherry size to ‘beefsteak’ type.
I also liked the ‘customer cutouts’ which identified the wants and needs of different customer groups. The ‘Master Gardener’ always looking for something new, Sarah ‘the mom’, who wants garden plants that are healthful, easy and have lots of color, Bob is ‘Balancing Beauty and Budget’ as he selects reliable color for his condo association or community. There were about seven cut outs in all including a couple gardening intensively on a balcony and another with a nice home and yard but no time to maintain plants. The idea of health and organic was pervasive throughout
There was plenty of color and plants to see. It was fun to meet up with old friends and see several of our horticulture graduates in attendance. Ball provides a very nice lunch and even music. If you missed it this year mark your calendars for the last Friday in July next year