Top rated flowers of 2009

Flower test garden results

By: Nancy Knauss ©2009
Penn State Extension

Favorites from the Demonstration Gardens

It is that time of year again for the annual review of Penn State Cooperative Extension's Demonstration Gardens in Allegheny County.  The gardens are located in North and South Parks and are planted and maintained by the Penn State Master Gardeners of Allegheny County.  The primary purpose of the gardens is to show home gardeners plants that perform well in local soils and climate with minimal maintenance. 

New Cultural Techniques

This year some new cultural techniques were incorporated in the gardens.  For many years, the beds were topped with horse manure in the fall which was then ro-totilled into the beds in the spring.  Because the planting beds have good soil structure and adequate organic matter, we chose not to rototill this year.  One of the main reasons was to reduce the number of weeds in the planting beds, as disturbing the soil in spring brings the weed seeds to the surface where conditions are good for germination.  Research also shows that over-cultivation can destroy the structure of the soil as well as damage earthworms and other organisms.  We hand weeded the beds and lightly turned the manure into the soil. After planting, a granular organic fertilizer was broadcast around the plants.  No herbicides, insecticides or fungicides are used. The gardens are planted the first week of June and the spent annuals removed at the end of the season.

The demonstration gardens focus on annual flowering plants because they remain the top selling horticultural crop.  Both gardens also include an assortment of perennial flowers, ornamental grasses, and herbs.  Each plant is labeled with a sign that includes botanical name, common name, cultural information, and the donor. 

Demonstration Garden in North Park
Cooperative Extension
Master Gardener Program
Demonstration Garden - North Park

Both gardens are exposed to full sun, and are open and unfenced. We do spray the daylily bed at North Park and the pollinator beds at both South and North Park with a deer repellent called Liquid Fence.   We also sprayed a few plants that were severely damaged right after planting to allow them a chance to get established (some never did recover).  Plants that are damaged by deer for three consecutive years are not planted again. The deer population forces us to try new plants every year, while keeping the tried and true.


Growing Weather Conditions

The weather this year was cool and rainy, and those plants that prefer the cooler temperatures thrived this year.  Other annuals which prefer hotter, drier weather never really reached their full potential.  Overall, it was a great year in the demonstration gardens and we were rewarded with many outstanding performers that thrived under the care of the Master Gardeners.  Because there were so many annuals that qualified for the outstanding category, this list includes some of the favorites of the Master Gardeners who tended them.  Plants that are considered outstanding performers bloomed all summer with minimal deadheading and had no signs of insect, disease problems or deer damage. 

Flower Favorites

Hands down, one of everyone’s favorite plants was Angelonia angustifolia, the summer snapdragon which was superior in both North and South Park gardens.    Angelonia is a tough, vigorous plant that grows well in containers, as well as beds and borders.  The flowers can be white, pink or shades of blue and purple.  Angelonia Angelface® Wedgwood Blue produces white and blue bicolor flowers.  Angelonia is an excellent cut flower, lasting up to 10 days in a vase.

Another standout at both gardens was the drought and heat tolerant ornamental pepper.  At South Park, everyone’s favorite choice was Capsicum annuum ‘Sangria’.  The plants have a mounded habit and produce striking purple and red fruits that are non-pungent.    The gardeners at North Park favored Capiscum annuum ‘Calico’ with its strongly variegated foliage of purple, cream and green, and its glossy black and red fruits. 

One of the most pleasant surprises was Penstemon ‘Phoenix Red’ with its very large rose-red flowers that have prominent white throats.  The blooms are produced on upright flower spikes, that do not flop and require minimal deadheading.  Phoenix red penstemon is heat tolerant, and attracts hummingbirds. 

Phoenix Red Penstemon
Penstemon ‘Phoenix Red’

Another surprise was Chrysocephalum apiculatum ‘Flambe Orange’.  The plants were rather weak looking when they were planted, but they hit the ground running and bloomed non-stop throughout the summer producing small button-like yellowish orange flowers all season.  Flambe orange strawflowers are heat and drought tolerant and are ideal in areas where watering is limited.  They have attractive silver gray foliage and perform well as a cascading plant in a container.

Perpetual Flower Favorites

Year after year, one of the most dramatic plants in the demonstration gardens is castor bean, Ricinus communis ‘Carmencita Bright Red’ which can reach 10 feet in height, although ours grew about 6 feet tall.  The palmate-shaped reddish-brown foliage and salmon-pink flowers are very showy; however, the seeds, leaves and stems are poisonous to humans and animals. 

Hibiscus  acetosella ‘Haight Asbury’ is grown primarily for its foliage which is a tapestry of colors ranging from rich burgundy to pink and cream.  Once established, the plants are heat and drought tolerant and perform well in large containers or in combination with other flowering annuals. 

Zinnias Outstanding!

The zinnias in North Park really stole the show this year.  We grew four different varieties which attracted many bees and pollinators.  Zinnia elegans  ‘Scarlet Flame’ grew 4 feet tall and produced scarlet red blooms all season until frost.  Although zinnias are susceptible to powdery mildew especially in humid conditions, ours were not affected until very late in the season.  Water zinnias by soaking the ground to keep leaves dry and prevent powdery mildew. 


Mexican Hyssop, Agastache mexicanus ‘Acapulco Red’ is a durable, old-fashioned favorite with fragrant flowers and foliage.  The whorled flowers which attract butterflies and hummingbirds range in color from orange, pink, mauve and purple.  Hyssop is extremely heat and drought tolerant. 

If you are looking for a white or light colored flower for full sun, consider planting gypsy white yarrow, Achillea ptarmica ‘Gypsy White’.  Mounds of delicate pure white flowers cascade from the fine foliage and are an excellent choice for containers or the front of a border.   Some deadheading is necessary to remove the spent blooms.

Pollinator Garden
North Park
2009 Pollinator Garden

Patina delft ageratum, Ageratum houstonianum ‘Patina Delft’ is a relatively new introduction with bi-colored button-like flowers in shades of soft blue and white.  The eye-catching blooms are appropriately named as the flowers are reminiscent of delft pottery.  The new flowers emerge just above the older flowers and effectively cover the spent blooms thus eliminating any need for deadheading. 

Purple Fountain Grass

Purple Fountain Grass, Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ produces waves of graceful nodding soft purple plumes that arch up and out from burgundy-tinted foliage.  It is especially dramatic in clusters, mass plantings or along slopes.  Fountain grass is heat and drought tolerant, and attractive in fall arrangements.

purple fountain grass

One of the most handsome plants grown at both gardens was Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’. The cobalt blue flowers with their black sepals attract many pollinators including hummingbirds.   Black and blue salvia produces tubers which can be dug and saved for subsequent years. 

Garden Conclusions

Be sure to include some of these outstanding performers on your shopping list and visit the gardens next summer to vote for your favorite annual –we want your input in our evaluations for next year.  The North Park Demonstration Garden is located at the intersection of Babcock Boulevard and Wildwood Road, at the Veteran's Monument across from North Park Lake. The South Park Demonstration Garden is located at the intersection of Corrigan Drive and McConkey Road, just down the road from South Park’s Wave Pool.


These gardens could not exist without the support of our partners from Allegheny County's Parks and Public Works departments.  Many thanks to the following local garden centers that generously donate seeds, plants, fertilizer and mulch to the Penn State Cooperative Extension Demonstration Gardens:  Bedner’s  Farm and Greenhouse, Cecil Twp.; Brenckle’s Farm & Greenhouses, Pittsburgh; Best Feeds Garden Centers, Gibsonia; Chapon’s Greenhouse & Supply, Baldwin; Donnan Landscape Services, McMurray; Eichner’s Farm Market & Greenhouse, Wexford; Englert Nursery & Landscaping, Bethel Park; Glenshaw Feed & Garden Center, Glenshaw; Hahn Nursery and Garden Center, North Hills; LMS Greenhouse & Nursery, Allison Park; McTighe’s Flower & Garden Market, Glenshaw; Meder’s Home & Garden Center, Pleasant Hills; Quality Gardens, Valencia; Renee’s Garden,; Reilly’s Summer Seat Farm, Ohio Township; Soergel’s Garden Center & Orchard, Wexford; Trax Farms, Inc., Finleyville; The Urban Gardener, Pittsburgh.


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