A Few Flashy First Look Perennials for 2020

Inspiration / Perennials

Thanks to Paul Westervelt from Saunders Brothers, Inc. for sharing the following content.


New is exciting. Allan Armitage was spot on when he said “nobody ever walked into a garden center and asked what’s old.” Unfortunately, new doesn’t always equal better. How many of us have been fooled by a snazzy picture and a promise from some new perennial? I have so I’m always happy to discover a flashy new plant that lives up to the high bar marketing set for it. The proof is always in the trial and the following varieties have performed well enough in our trials to warrant adding to our First Look list for 2020.


When we first saw Gaillardia SpinTop™ Yellow Touch at the breeder’s facility, the vibrant flowers pulled me in somewhat against my will. Between disease and remarkably short lifespans, I’ve learned not to expect much from Gaillardia. I was pleasantly surprised when it sailed through production trials without issue, but still braced myself to find it stone dead come spring. Imagine my delight to find them not only not dead but thriving in our ground trial this spring - in heavy clay, no less - while a top contender adjacent to it struggled mightily. 


Perovskia atriplicifolia is a pretty bulletproof perennial for full sun and an example of a species that’s so good new cultivars often don’t offer much if any improvement. ‘Crazy Blue’ offers two improvements in one package – earlier bloom and better habit. Of the eight cultivars in our ground trial, ‘Crazy Blue’ is always the earliest to flower by days or weeks depending on which it’s compared to. It also has the best habit – not falling apart even through late summer thunderstorms. These attributes combined with the long bloom time, deer resistance, and drought tolerance of the species earned it First Look status.


Upright garden Phlox has been a staple of the summer perennial garden for ages. They come in an ever-expanding range of colors which is fully exploited (and sometimes enhanced) by marketers, so a white and pink could easily be overlooked. What sets Phlox Fashionably Early Crystal and Flamingo apart from the pack is their garden performance. These interspecific hybrids reliably bloom in May weeks earlier than paniculatas and they are very resistant to powdery mildew. It’s hard to find a Phlox that doesn’t claim to be resistant to that scourge of summer gardens, but after three years in ground trials next to dozens of other “resistant” varieties, only ‘Jeana’ has been cleaner and she’s many weeks later to flower.


Salvia ‘Rose Marvel’ is a relatively compact cultivar with an upright habit, dark buds, and enormous florets. While my description may sound like a plastic surgery catastrophe, the plant is a breathtaking show stopper in person. ‘Blue Marvel’ has equally large florets and is exceptional in its own right but in a species dominated by blues, the pink stands out much more. After several years of production and ground trials, I can also attest to Rose Marvel’s resistance to powdery mildew and bacterial leaf spot. 


Variegated sedums are a trick I’ve fallen for again and again – their dazzling foliage sweeping me off my feet just to send me crashing back to reality as they revert miserably the next year (when they wait that long). With a skeptic’s eye and a plant lover’s heart I’ve watched Sedum ‘Dream Dazzler’ in production and the ground for a full year and I’m a believer. Yes, there are some reversions, but only a few and removal as they emerge in the spring seems to hold through the year. ‘Dream Dazzler’ forms a small mound of foliage and has the most striking color when grown in full sun. It does bloom – hot pink in fall – but with foliage like that, who cares?! 


Spigelia marilandica is a stunning native perennial that blooms from late May through June in Virginia. The red tubular flowers with yellow throats are a feast for the eyes and for hummingbirds. Even though it’s normally found in moist ravines, I’ve grown it in full sun for years without issue. Its only major hitch is it’s hard to overwinter in pot production. As a result, what plants did make it to retail garden centers weren’t likely to be robust. Our friends at Walters Gardens solved this by offering large bare root liners of the compact selection, ‘Little Redhead’. Now it’s just as much a joy to grow in pots as in the garden ensuring it’ll be available for gardeners and hummingbirds. Happy planting!