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. Natalie says:

    I save seeds of my favorite nightshades. If I have good luck with a certain plant then I figure I’ll up my chances of success next year by saving seeds from the best fruit of that plant. My tomatoes are always happy even in the tricky climate of the Pacific Northwest. So I keep doing it every year. I never thought of it as plant breeding before!

  2. Leslie Prest says:

    I save seed for tomatoes, peppers, sunflowers. I let a lot of things self seed, have the 4th generation of zinnias in one bed and am getting some interesting variations.

  3. Barbara Shepard says:

    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.

  4. Christa Herold says:

    I save seed from several annuals consciously, but sub consciously select for certain qualities. I asve hyacinth. beans, cleome, cosmos and zinnias. After listening to the podcast, I will look upon seed saving with fresh eyes.

  5. David Glowen says:

    I have never considered practicing selection, other than using the same seeds from the same package every year, I should probably learn to save seeds, from my favorite plants.

    I have had to downsize from a house with a lovely garden to an apt with a patio, This year I will be trying a lot of container planting. and maybe in a community garden.

    While we get our finances in order I will be studying more about gardening so that when I have a house with a garden I can really go plant wild.

  6. Deborah Banks says:

    I scatter nigella seeds all through my garden every year, and when they bloom, I pull out the white and pale ones. I want the good blues only. And when I save seed from my primula japonicas and scatter foxglove seed, I pick the tallest most robust stalks.

  7. Kristine says:

    Lots of selection and saving here – a Stan’s Best cherry tomato just because my dad’s name was Stan, Polish Jenn garlic, Multistar Peas, Pale Grey Hopi squash, lots of others

  8. Linda Phelps says:

    I save zinnias and bachelor buttons by choosing the biggest and brightest flowers and also save the cosmos seeds that the bees have pollinated and turned the white flowers into gorgeous white flowers with bright pink edges. I also have saved tomato and sweet pepper seeds, choosing the first and biggest ones.

  9. Cynthia Alexander says:

    i have a cut flower farm and the 2 selections I’ve been working on for size and color are: Poppies (bigger fuller peony types and larger pods suitable for drying), and Zinnias (creamy corals and peaches).

  10. Mary Doane says:

    I’ve just begun saving some of the seeds from my lavender, and from another plant that I haven’t identified. I like the idea seeing what comes up, plus with the unknown plant, I wouldn’t mind having more of it (it was here when I bought my house). I also like the gathering and sorting that goes with it.

  11. Greta tisdale says:

    i have saved seed from abandoned city yards filled with hollyhocks of unusual colors…obviously self sowing there for years.
    Or planting out native persimmon tree seeds from a favorite tree out of state… Then after planting out…waiting years and only selecting the best fruiting ones to remain standing.

  12. Tina Knowlton says:

    I’ve saved my own Pineapple and Johnson tomato seed and certain varieties of bean seed. Will be doing more this year. Trying to wean myself away from seed companies who don’t give “senior discounts” or understand about Social Security!

  13. Jackie says:

    Yes! I’ve grown hard neck garlic from my own seed since 2002. I always save cilantro seeds. Calendula. Nasturtium. Love self down viola, too! I must have a million seeds from a positively spectacular Watchman hollyhock in this past year’s garden.


    YES, I do save seeds from years to year…and I was thinking about saving tomato seeds – but they seem a little more fussy. I usually just let my tomato plants seed themselves naturally in the garden. I do collect my specialty pumpkin seeds and squashes. Last year I grew a squash and I didn’t recognize the variety, but it was very watery when cooked.

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