No matter how chilly it is outdoors, gardeners keep warm with thoughts of spring and new plants to grow.
Winter brings a constant flow of catalogs, stuffed with the latest introductions. Each promises to be better or bigger than anything before it.
For example, the new Burpee catalog features on its cover a life-size SuperSauce hybrid billed as "the world's largest sauce tomato" that's almost as big as my hand.
A friend calls these catalogs "garden porn." Flipping through page after page of colorful vegetables, fruit or flowers, each glamour shot of ripe tomatoes, succulent melon or voluptuous roses almost makes you drool.
Will those tomatoes ever look so enticing in the flesh? Only a tryout in the backyard will tell.
Although I have to wait to test new vegetables, I do get a sneak peak at many varieties of annuals, perennials and roses, my specialty.
For the past four years, I've tested plants before their introduction to the public. I rarely coddle these tryouts; it wouldn't be fair. If they're going to get a recommendation, they have to stand up to neglect and still look fabulous.
I confess: Many have died in this pursuit of perfection. But the survivors have proved their superiority. They really are better plants that need very little care.
I was particularly impressed by two hybrid annuals introduced by Proven Winners: "Lemon Slice" Superbells and "Picasso in Pink" Supertunia.
A calibrachoa or "million bells," Lemon Slice looks like a small petunia (it stays under 10 inches tall) with bright yellow and white flowers that cover the whole plant throughout the summer into fall. Hardy to 30 degrees, it was still blooming in late November before finally succumbing to frost.
Compact yet trailing, Superbells (Proven Winners' calibrachoa series) work well in containers. I grew them in both pots and hanging baskets. They tolerate heat and lack of water without losing their vibrancy.
Also look for "Cherry Star" (a yellow-striped bright pink) and "Grape Punch" (a two-tone purple) Superbells; they also proved to be prolific.
Picasso in Pink is a petunia with a difference. The compact plant forms a soft mound of flowers. Each pink bloom has a chartreuse edge that looks as if it was painted by hand. Heat- and drought-tolerant, it's a butterfly magnet, too.
What I liked about this pretty Picasso: It could take Sacramento's summer heat without fading and keep blooming even if watered sporadically. It's easy-care, too; spent flowers just fall off.
I experimented with "Colorblaze Marooned" coleus, another Proven Winner introduction, and discovered two interesting plants in one. In full sun, the velvety leaves stayed dark red. In shade, they displayed olive patterns against the maroon as the leaves' pigments reacted to the change of light.
Either way, Marooned is a great heat-tolerant foliage plant to combine with other annuals. Growing more than 2 feet tall, it was a striking counterpoint to the Superbells.
Rose growers will find two new favorites from the crop of 2013: "Francis Meilland" and "Dark Night."
Already a hit in Europe, Francis Meilland is the All-America Rose Selection for 2013. Named for the legendary breeder of the Peace rose, it's a fabulous hybrid tea. This tall and aristocratic bush boasts pearlescent blooms with the lightest pink blush.
What makes Francis Meilland really stand out is its foliage. The dark glossy green leaves are extremely resistant to disease and always look good. As a bonus, this tea rose has a strong citrus scent.
Another hybrid tea, Dark Night undoubtedly will become a favorite for 49er fans. Its petals combine rich dark red with golden yellow undersides. In bright sun, the red becomes almost black. It blooms abundantly from spring through late fall.
You'll see for yourself in nurseries soon or catalogs now.