catalog shopping? think like a seed breeder, says joseph tychonievich

joseph tychonievichSURPRISE: You’re already doing some basic seed breeding right in your own backyard, simply by selecting the strongest seedlings that emerge to grow on to transplant size and beyond, or by saving seed at season’s end.

Joseph Tychonievich, author of, “Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener: How to Create Unique Vegetables and Flowers” (affiliate link), says that just a little knowledge of the basics of breeding and genetics might help you shop with new discernment–with the eye of a breeder–from that heap of catalogs on the bedside table.

Joseph, former nursery manager at Arrowhead Alpines, the venerable rare-plant nursery in Michigan, was named one of “six young horticulturists who are helping to shape how America gardens” by “Organic Gardening” magazine, and he recently joined the popular collaborative Garden Professors blog at extension.org and on Facebook. He also blogs at Green Sparrow Gardens, his personal website.

In our conversation on my public-radio show and podcast, Joseph told me how to take best advantage of all the self-sowns that pop up by knowing which to keep and which to thin out; how to apply a smarter eye to saving seed, and more.

Read along as you listen to the Jan. 5, 2015 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Our discussion was the second installment in the second year of my annual wintertime seed series (here’s the whole archive). This year’s series began last episode with Bill Tracy, a longtime professional corn breeder from the University of Wisconsin, and the story of a new organic corn and why it matters.


photo by Joseph Tychonievich

backyard seed-breeding q&a

Q. I read in the introduction to “Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener,” Joseph, that your breeding career began with some violas at a very young age.  Tell us a little about what got you hooked, and what you focus on today in your own experiments.

A. Yes, the violas were one of the things that got me thinking about plant breeding. I planted my first garden in my early teens, including some violas and pansies. They started self-sowing in the garden, and the bees started hybridizing them, and new color and forms started popping up just among the self-sown seed.

It got me excited, and it was fun to see the different forms that came up, and the way that over time they adapted to my climate and conditions, and started performing better.

I think what really got me hooked was really just the sheer magic of it. To me gardening is always magic: The way seeds turn into plants, I’m still blown away by that. Doing it with plant breeding, there’s the sense of something new—something new to the world—that has come into being in my garden. Watching new flowers come into bloom still really excites me, even today.

[One of Joseph’s self-sown violas, above.]

Q. The word “unique” is a bad word—experts on language point out that most things are not unique, and that it’s overused; improperly used. But with what you just said—with those violas popping up—each one was unique, genetically different from its predecessor or sister-brother-cousin nearby.

A. They’re unique in that sense—they’re something different. And it’s also because they were growing in my garden, so they were uniquely suited to my conditions. That’s because the selection I’d made was not just different, but suited to what I like, and what performs well in my garden.

Q. What lessons about genetics and breeding are most relevant to those of us with our noses buried in the pages of seed catalogs right now?  

A. I think one thing worth thinking about when you read seed catalogs is the people and the location behind the varieties.

Q. The people and the location?

A. Yes. Every variety you’re seeing in the catalogs was bred by a person somewhere in the country or elsewhere.

So, for instance, when I look at the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog, they’re in Maine, in a Northern climate similar to mine, so the things they breed do really well for me, versus someone located in a realty different that doesn’t always translate so well.

The context of where that variety might be coming from helps us understand how it might perform for your garden.

Q. So regionality is one thing to look for, one of the clues, because seed adapts, and will reflect where it was bred and grown over many years.

A. Yes. And then I also like to think about the people. Some catalogs are great about mentioning the breeder. To me it’s like when I hear a great song on the radio and want to hear who the artist is.

green zebra tomatoesIf you grew ‘Green Zebra,’ the great tomato that was bred by Tom Wagner—if you loved it you’re probably going to love his other tomatoes. And now he’s breeding potatoes, which I haven’t tried. But I really like his stuff, so I want to try other things by him.

Everybody wants to breed healthy, beautiful, tasty plants—but what that means to each breeder is a little different. When you find something you like, it’s often worth exploring what else they do that might perform well for you.

Q. When you and I spoke recently, you said: “Even if you’re just saving seed you’re really breeding.” A lot of people hear the word breeding and think, I’ve got to cover the flowers with bags after I touch the pollen from one to another, and separate them by a mile, and do all these things.” But some of it is making observations to go with the best of the bunch. I loved Chapter 5 of your book, which has a great title, “Narrowing the Field,” where you say selection is your favorite part of the process.

A. If you’re saving seeds or even just growing seeds, you’re doing selection. The lesson to keep in mind: Life doesn’t stay still. Organisms change and respond to their environment.

If you sow a packet of seeds and 50 percent germinate, you’ve just selected the best 50 percent that were adapted to germinate in the conditions you provided (or the best 50 percent to survive the conditions you stored the seed in).

And that goes on: If you grow out the seedlings and pick out the most vigorous ones, and transplant those, and see which ones survived transplanting. Whether you’re trying to or not, you’re selecting every step along the way.

Q. A friend who manages Turtle Tree biodynamic seed company, Lia Babitch, told me that selection starts when she takes out the seeds from the packet. She looks at the seeds and discards the runts, which at first surprised me.

A. Again, it’s something you’re doing whether you think about it or not. I like to grow extra seedlings to have the chance to choose the healthiest ones. Or when you’re saving seed from your tomatoes, walk down the row and notice if any plants are healthier, or produced more fruit, and save seeds from the very best.

Q. So with something like tomatoes, you might have made observations with which emerged, and which were most robust, and again after some transplants didn’t jump up and grow, and what else?

A. As a breeder, I’m always kind of excited when something comes in and kills most of my plants. [Laughter.]

Q. That’s very nice, Joseph. [Laughter.] Such an optimistic view of gardening!

A. Yes, but when there’s a really terrible winter, or I get late blight on tomatoes (which I haven’t had in years)—it’s really sad, but also interesting to see which plants survived. The plant that doesn’t have blight when all the others do—that’s a goldmine for selecting.

Q. I expect you consider taste when selecting tomatoes.   

A. Taste, yield, beauty—observing every detail of the plant. Some people like a smooth, round tomato; some like the funky-looking ones. Is the plant doing everything I want in terms of performance, aesthetics, flavor.

Q. You talk about looking for who was behind a variety when you read the seed catalogs. Even if I don’t know the breeder names, I look for evidence that someone has been selecting and maintaining and caring for the varieties being sold.

'Butternut' squash after storing till springFor instance at Turtle Tree, they’re been selecting a ‘Butternut’ squash for lastingness–for keeping into the next year [above]. Or at Uprising Seeds, they’ve been working with ‘Astro’ arugula or ‘Chioggia’ beet, or Adaptive Seeds with all their kale genetics, or lettuce breeder Frank Morton at Wild Garden Seed. I perk up when I see evidence in the catalogs of that kind of active engagement with the varieties.

A. And it’s worth saying, especially with heirloom varieties: Just because it has the same name, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily quiet the same plant. Like ‘Brandywine’ tomato lineage may be quite different from one company to another.

Q. I always say, a ‘Brandywine’ isn’t a ‘Brandywine isn’t a ‘Brandywine.’ Try 20 packets from 20 places, and you won’t get 20 of the same thing.

A. And then you get the fun of choosing your favorites among them!

Q. What about managing our inevitable vegetable garden self-sowns: I diligently pull all my tomato self-sowns, to prevent possible disease carryover, but I’m happy to have other self-sowns, especially annual and biennial flowers that make up  what you could call the Accidental Garden.

I’m swear I’m still eating ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ lettuce from a row I sowed eons ago–not the same plants, of course, but descendants. Let’s talk self-sown like lettuce.

A. Lettuce is a great one. I love self-sown plants, because they do most of the work for you. Natural selection will sort through those plants and get you the ones that are best adapted and evolve to grow and perform in your climate.

The next step is to add a little bit of your artificial selection on top of that. For me, I have a lot of different varieties that are all sowing together…

Q. …I bet you do!… [Laughter.]

A. …I always watch and see when they start bolting and go to seed.  [Lettuce going to seed, below.] The first ones that start bolting: I pull those up. I like to le the ones self-sow that waited the longest to go to flower.  Just by looking and saying, “I’m going to pull up the ones that flower first, and let the ones that flower later provide my seed for the next generation,” I’m influencing it.

lettuce going to seedQ. So bolt resistance is something you’re selecting for.

A. Right. When they’re self-sowing, the vigorous ones are going to produce the most seed, so you don’t have to worry so much about the health.

You can look at how they taste and perform, so with tomatoes for instance, you could look at how soon which ones started producing the first ripe fruit—whatever traits you like. Nature will do natural selection to get you the most vigorous plants, and then you push them toward the plants that have the qualities you like.

Q. I’ve been making you talk about lettuce and tomatoes, but you have a particular passion for flowers. What about self-sown flowers?

photo by Joseph TychonievichA. Besides the violas we talked about, columbines are a common one, and Nicotiana often seeds around. Even petunias—old-fashioned petunia varieties do it, too.

The columbines in particular. I always say columbines have no morals. [One of Joseph’s self-sown columbines, above.]

Q. They are sexpots for sure.

A. Whatever you plant, you’re going to have all kinds of crazy hybrids pop up, and again, natural selection will start pushing them toward adaptation to your conditions. You just get to go through and say, “Which colors do I like the best,” and, “Which forms do I like the best,” and you pull out the ones you don’t like.

Q. If I see a self-sown columbine in the garden, and it looks different and I like it, and I save its seed…what will I get next year?

A. Well, who knows? [Laughter.]

Q. Yes, truth in advertising about seed breeding with hybrids.  [Laughter.]

A. Especially with columbines, because they’re pollinated by insects, and insects can fly a long way with that pollen. Unexpected stuff comes up, but it you keep saving the ones you like best, selecting, you’ll gradually move the toward the traits you like best.

Q. It’s a slow process, whether informal backyard plant breeding or the commercial form.

A. But I think the fun part is the variability. I’d be disappointed if my columbines were the same every year—I like something different popping up, the diversity. The process is more fun sometimes than the finished product.

Q. Let’s talk about the role hybrids play in breeding. Especially since worries about genetically engineered seed crops have surfaced, some gardeners mistakenly worry that hybrids (which are not the same as genetically engineered plants) are bad. Even if they’re not confused about what hybrids are, they may skip them because you can’t save their seed, the way you can with open pollinated varieties, including heirlooms. But from a breeder’s perspective, that’s not true, exactly, is it?

A. I love saving seeds from hybrid varieties, because you don’t get the same thing. Instead you get diversity. It’s a lot of fun.

Tomatoes are a good example. Some plants you get a lot of vigor from being a hybrid, like corn, and you can lose vigor when you turn it from a hybrid into an open-pollinated strain.  But tomatoes really don’t lose much vigor. It’s really easy to take a hybrid tomato variety, sow out the seedlings, and then select forms that are similar to the hybrid and create a strain that’s similar to the hybrid but comes true from seed. People call that “dehybridizing” sometimes; I think of it as “customizing.”

Q. Customizing! [Laughter.]

photo by Joseph TychonievichA. For instance, ‘Early Girl’ is a hybrid tomato that I like. It’s dependable, it performs well for me, I always get a good crop from it. The flavor’s decent. If you sow seeds from it, it’s an F1 hybrid but you get some that are bigger, some smaller, the flavor may be a little different, and that’s a great opportunity to me to look through and see what I like best. Do I want it to be a bigger fruit, or a smaller fruit, or what?

It’s an opportunity to maybe get a plant that you like better, and then adapts better to your climate and conditions, than the hybrid you started with.

Q. So Joseph, what catches your eye when catalog shopping? What are you looking for this year, or what’s looking good?

A. This year I am really into big, old-fashioned annuals. Zinnias, and marigolds, and the big, tall cutting ones. I have a soft spot in my heart from them. I’m collecting a bunch of them and this year I want to breed big, tall, blowsy annuals—not like the little, short petunias at the garden center, but big, tall annuals.

enter to win the book

Tychonievich_Cover_CMYKI’LL SEND A COPY of Joseph Tychonievich’s book, “Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener,” to a lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below the very last comment on the bottom of the page:

Do you consciously or otherwise practice selection in your garden, or save seeds, or any other process that’s part of plant breeding?

My answer: I have consciously saved my own strain of ‘German Extra Hardy’ hardneck garlic for at least 15 years, adapting it to my garden and my preference for biggest heads with biggest cloves.

A random winner will be chosen after entries close at midnight on Sunday, January 11, 2015. U.S. and Canada only. Good luck to all.

(Disclosure: Amazon affiliate links yield a commission.)

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Jan. 5, 2015 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

(Photos of columbine, viola and grid of tomatoes courtesy Joseph Tychonievich.)

  1. I do save flower and herb seeds, more than anything to show our kids the life cycle of plants. Because we have so little sun and our tomatoes grow so close together, I don’t necessarily save those seeds, because I fear cross pollination (and I’m picky about my tomato varieties!) The book has been on my list–can wait to read it! Thank you for the fun giveaway!

  2. Vicki says:

    I save seed from my tomatoes. I process the seed via the instructions from winter sown site. I let some of my lettuce, arugula, and bok choi go to seed, and let the finches have their fill. I find they do a good job of planting for me! I also save seed from my squash, kale, and chives and replant it myself. I try to save seed from my asclepias, but the monarchs find them and since I planted them for the monarchs I have to let them have anything they want.

    My favorite seed that I save is from Amaryllis belladonna. I pollinated the blooms between two hybrids that I have. I am waiting for them to bloom. The seeds are so beautiful. They look like translucent pink pearls.

    It is always so much fun to see how the new plants turn out!

  3. Claire Copley says:

    I am a gardner who is trying to understand seeds and to work with their potential. I wish I was thirty years younger so I had time to work on this! I only started saving seed last year, though I have been culling seed garlic ever since I started growing it. This is a fascinating new territory!

  4. Melony says:

    I always save seeds from any plant that seed, especially my columbines, salvias, and violas. This year I let a bunch of my annuals go to seed and do their own thing. I ended up with an interesting new snap dragon, volunteer petunias and different colored violas. I love seeing all the new plants that emerge and its even better knowing I didn’t have to pay for them.

  5. Sigrid says:

    I save flower seeds, and, occasionally, vegetable seeds. I’ve never thought of it as selecting, which is a pity because I had a great strain of decorative mini-pumpkins that I got from harvesting an untended sport along the fence in my non-gardening brother’s back yard. I saved the seeds because there were there and I was feeling cheap. Every time I’ve planted it, it’s always been prolific and vigorous.

  6. Terri says:

    I have been saving mostly flower seeds for over 35 years. Now that I have retired, I would like to save more. This book would be very helpful to me in knowing the best methods to go about it. My husband may want to save some of his vegetable seeds too!

  7. Jessica s says:

    I’m new to gardening in my own, having just moved 9 Mos ago to 5 acres in Illinois from downtown chicago high rise. I’m seeking the ultimate corn seed (non-gmo and organic) so I can finally give my kids good for them popcorn! Along with my sinanddaughter being diagnosed with dairy/casein allergy, my mother and father-in-law were diagnosed with Parkinsons since moving to the country, and this has altered our cooking, food intake, organic, country living existence. Hanging on every word as i prep our first organic non-gmo kitchen garden “in the round” here at home. P.s. 2015 move to the country has also changed my career, and I’m just beginning to understand what that means for us.

  8. Lauren D. says:

    I’ve saved seeds for years, starting when I was maybe ten or eleven years old. My mother let me have a little garden space to myself, where I’d plant the little “johnny jump ups”(viola tricolor) and spread the little seeds around hoping they’d sprout later. I’d also pull “weed” seeds from wildflowers and plant them here too.
    Nowadays, I save tomatoes, columbine, and monarda among others, and also been collecting wildflower seeds such as asters, herbs, marigold, peppers, milkweed, wild grasses&sedges and goldenrod with hopes of them turning into plants for a wildflower garden.
    Any suggestions on getting hellebores to grow from seed? I haven’t had much luck yet but I love them and there’s such a limited selection from the nurseries!!!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Lauren. Click over to this page from Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery, and scroll down to the propagation portion. They are easy from seed IF and ONLY IF the seed is very fresh — so usually they set seed in May or June-ish and if you don’t sow it by July forget it. (I am approximating dates, but just to stress: short window of opportunity.)

  9. Janet Pyles says:

    Well, yes I do, but long ago I was the petunia breeder at the Joseph Harris Seed Company in Rochester, NY. JOseph Harris Seeds became Harris Moran Seeds. I can’t wait to read Joseph’s book, he is clearly passionate and articulate about his field, and writes in an engaging way. When people would ask what I did for a living, I could count on 4 -5 seconds before their eyes would glaze over and I’d lose them! Well done Joseph, to tackle a book on plant breeding with humor and delight – it is a fascinating field. Pun intended.

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