sunflowers, sweet peas, zinnias and more, with joseph tychonievich

JOSEPH TYCHONIEVICH, a garden writer and backyard plant breeder and passionate flower grower, has gone on a bit of a sunflower binge, declaring it his personal Year of the Sunflower. He and I chatted recently about the best of the old and new Helianthus, some favorite catalogs for sunflowers and many other easy flowers like zinnias and even Nigella—and also about growing sweet peas, which apparently are also front-and-center on Joseph’s wishlist this year.

You may recall previous confessionals from Joseph, about his “issues,” shall we say, with gladiolus and hollyhocks. He is the author of books on backyard plant breeding and also rock gardening, among his many botanical interests—and you can enter to win a copy of “Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener” in the comments box at the very bottom of the page.

Our interview is another episode of the A Way to Garden annual winter seed series, when I virtually shop the catalogs with various expert friends and get growing advice, too. Browse all the past episodes in the multi-year series.

Read along as you listen to the Jan. 15, 2018 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).

sunflowers, sweet peas, & zinnias, with joseph tychonievich



Q. So you’re in your new home in Virginia, but you’re used to being a Midwestern gardener. And you’re paging through the catalogs madly and ordering everything. [Laughter.]

A. Yes. Exactly.

Q. Well, that’s good. Must be exciting, the idea of starting your first year in a new place in a new zone.

A. Yes. I don’t know what I’m doing…

Q. Good. Good, good, good.

A. …which is fun. And I’m buying a lot of seed, because I think seed is the best way to try things in a new zone. Because it’s a low investment. So I’m buying a bunch of stuff. And if it dies, I’m out a few bucks. I’m not going to worry about it.

Q. Did you order any new catalogs sort of geared toward the mid-Atlantic or even the South that you hadn’t maybe risked buying from before, whatever? Or same palette?

A. Well, I stumbled on a website called the Florida Wildflowers…

Q. Uh-oh.

A. …which maybe went a little far south. [Laughter.] But that’s actually when I started my whole sunflower thing, because I was looking for something called the beach sunflower, that’s native down there. And I found a bunch of interesting Southeast-native plants to try from them. [Photo of beach sunflower by Daniel Di Palma, from Wikimedia Commons.]

Q. So you have widened your catalog choices a little bit already.

A. Yes, a little bit. Yes.

Q. Oh boy. Uh-oh. I can see this is going to be dangerous. So sort of based on the adventures in your popular book, “Plant Breeding For the Home Gardener,” it’s not enough for you, at any rate, to grow things from the catalogs. But you sort of always tinker with them and you try crosses and selections, and you save your own seed like you did with … or you save in some cases, it’s not literally seed. But with the gladiolus and the hollyhocks.

So I suspect this sunflower thing that you’ve told me about and you’re going to tell us about today is sort of headed in that direction. Is it? I mean, you just said one that’s native to Florida. Are you collecting genetics, so to speak, in the form of seed from different species and varieties of sunflowers?

A. Yes. I mean, I like sunflowers a lot. And I’ve grown a few of them for years. Because if you have a bunch of different varieties, they’ll interbreed really freely, and they tend to self-sow. So once you collect different ones, even if they self-sow or you collect seeds, you often pretty soon have hybrids and fun stuff to select from. So I’ve grown for a while Helianthus argophyllus, which is the silver-leaf sunflower.

Helianthus argophyllus sunflower variety 'Japanese Sliver-Leaf'Q. My favorite of all. [Margaret’s post about the silver-leaf. Photo above.]

A. It’s beautiful. Because the leaves look almost like a lamb’s ear, and then you get the sunflowers. And it’s quickly interbred with I think my neighbor’s sunflowers. I don’t know. I wasn’t growing other ones.

Q. [Laughter.]

A. But it’s started getting different colors in that. And so now I’m wanting to add in more species and diversity, just to see if I can pump up the excitement there.

Q. So for people who don’t know that one. When I grow it, I have to start it way, way ahead of time to put out good-sized plants. Because I’m in a short, like you used to be in the Midwest, a short frost-free season, relatively. But then it would turn into this multi-branched plant. It wasn’t just one main stem and a big head on top. It had a lot of different arms and smaller, many smaller sunflowers on the silvery-felted foliage. Yes?

A. Yes. And I’ve seen once it starts hybridizing with my regular annual sunflowers, it starts blooming earlier, because the pure species bloom really late for me.

Q. It does. And that’s why I have to start it super early. Otherwise I don’t get anything but stems, as you know.

A. Yes. I like the hybrids because they start blooming earlier. And I know Peace Seedlings offers a similar hybrid mix, which is hybrids with argophyllus and other and regular annual sunflowers.

Q. I was going to say that. It’s a population of them, right? It’s different individuals. It’s a great one.

A. Which is really fun. Because then you can grow all this diversity and then pick out the ones you like best or the ones that perform the best in your particular climate conditions.

Q. And become a crazy, backyard plant breeder like Joseph. [Above, some of Joseph’s H. argophyllus x annuus seedlings.]

A. Absolutely. The other new one I’m adding this year is the beach sunflower, which is Helianthus debilis. And I saw this … I don’t remember where I was, somewhere in South Carolina. And it’s a sunflower, but it grows flat along the ground like a groundcover. And it’s a native along the sand dunes along the coast of Florida, which led me to my Florida seed source.

Q. O.K. There is a story behind this craziness.

A. And it’s so cool. Because the plant doesn’t look like a sunflower. But then the flowers, just classic sunflower blooms on this flat, trailing thing. So I’m like, “Ooh, that’s looking different. I can’t pass that up.” So I got some seeds of that to try. I have no idea how they’ll do for me. But we’ll see.

Q. So those are two species that are going to be in this beginning of a collection that’s going to be doing some crossing and we’ll see what happens. Have you also grown other sunflowers that sort of are named varieties of Helianthus annuus, I guess is what it would be that a lot of them are. Is that right?

A. Yes. I have. This year, I went for a lot of little short ones.

Q. Oh, I’ve noticed that there are more of those. Yes, so if we don’t have a big space.

A. I’ve never grown them before, actually. And there’s a lot of selections. And where’s my seed list here?

Q. I don’t know. It’s here somewhere. [Laughter.]

A. I got ones called ‘Pacino’ and ‘Sunspot,’ which are little short ones. They’ll only bloom at 2 or 3 feet. I always usually go for giant things, so I thought I’d mix it up this year and grow short ones.

Q. What was the first one called?

A. ‘Pacino,’ P-A-C-I-N-O.

Q. Oh, like Al Pacino.

A. Oh, Yes. Yes. It should be ‘Pacino.’ [‘Pacino mix’ sunflowers from the breeder Benary’s website, above.]

Q. Well, no. I don’t know. It could be anything. But I’m just saying, it reminds me. Because that’s how I’ll be able to remember it. So that and ‘Sunspot.’

A. So those are little dwarf ones, which will be fun. And I’m hoping again, if they cross to my other species, they might bring some early flowering genes into it, because some of those species really want to get 8 feet tall and a million branches, and then bloom right before frost.

Q. [Laughter.]

A. The one thing I like to avoid though are F1 hybrid varieties. Usually I’m fine with F1 hybrids, but with sunflowers, the F1 hybrid varieties are usually male sterile, which means they don’t produce any pollen. Which is often marketed as a good thing, this pollenless-ness, I guess. I don’t know why that’s supposed to be a good thing. But I don’t like it because you can’t breed with them. And they’re not as good food for the bees—they don’t have any pollen for the bees to harvest.

Q. So these are interesting flowers, because what we think of as the flowers are this composite. It used to be called the Composite family, or maybe still it is. The Daisy family, the Sunflower family, the Composite family; I can’t keep up with what we’re calling it these days. But it’s called Composite because what we think of as the flowers, these sort of heads, they have two kinds of flowers. They have a ray flower, the things we think of as petals. And then the disc flowers in the center. And so the pollen would be in the center, right?

A. Right.

Q. So when you go to try to force a cross between two sunflowers, you’d be moving pollen from those many disc flowers in the center from one to the other [plant]. Do you ever do that with a sunflower—do you ever force it manually?

A. I have a couple times. But I feel like usually the bees do it for me and I just let them have their way. And then I like having a lot of pollen around, because it’s good for all the … lots of native insects use that as a major food source. So it’s always nice when something’s pretty and also supports some of the native pollinators around me at the same time.

Q. So for the type of thing you’re doing, and also for the benefit of pollinators who would enjoy the pollen, the F1 hybrids are the ones that are not on your list. But basically other than that, you’re going to try a mixture of a couple of species as well as some Helianthus annuus, some selections, some cultivars or varieties of that, named ones.

A. Yes. Little bit of everything.

Q. Yes. There’s so many things called sunflower. That’s the other thing. I used to always grow Tithonia, the Mexican sunflower they call it commonly. But it’s in a different genus. It’s not Helianthus. Have you ever grown that?

A. No, I haven’t. I’ve seen it in gardens a lot, but I’ve never actually tried it.

Q. Yes, it’s this big tall, with the big orange sunflower-y looking, sort of somewhere between a giant marigold and a sunflower. I always loved it. And I mean, not that it could get involved in your breeding program, because again it’s a different genus. But there are other things also called sunflowers like that. Having been looking in the flower catalogs in anticipation of talking to you. [Laughter.]

Do you start your sunflower seeds indoors or in pots or in cells, or direct sow? What are you going to do?

A. I usually sow them directly outside where they are going to grow. You can start them inside. But If I can start stuff outside, I’d rather do that, because I feel like it’s so much easier. So I really try to reserve the stuff that I’m growing indoors under lights to things like my tomatoes that really need that extra-long season. Because inside, you have to worry about getting enough light and damping off, and transplanting them. And some things, especially a big fat seed like the sunflower, or zinnias or cosmos, a lot of those things—I feel like it’s just so much easier to just sow them directly outside rather than messing with pots and lights and transplanting.

Q. That’s good to hear. O.K., good. So all you have to worry about is the occasional chipmunk, if they have them in your new hometown.

A. Yes. Chipmunks. Crows, also. They can be pretty smart about finding seeds when they’re starting to germinate, actually.

Q. Yes. Sometimes when I sow big seeds, even when I sow my peas in the spring. Sometimes I’ll put, like it’s a piece of burlap or a piece of netting, just pin it down with some earth staples, just temporarily over. Before germination, I mean. You know what I mean? Just to sort of discourage. Sometimes I do that as a preventive, nontoxic preventive. Rather than going out and screaming at the chipmunks. [Laughter.] Which by the way doesn’t work.

A. No. Yes, I learned that with corn. And the crows quickly learned that if they followed my row. They’re smart enough to figure out that there’s corn in a row, and they went right down the line, so. But yes, cutting a little netting or burlap works really well, till they get up.

Q. It’s always a tip-off when you have zero percent germination. [Laughter.] Because I’m sorry, you can’t possibly have failed that badly, Margaret. The seed could not have been 100 percent dead. You know what I mean? And you know someone’s been through there. Some demonic little creature trying to drive you nuts has systematically un-sown all your seeds, every last one of them.

So then you find them pretty easy. You direct sow them. And obviously, they grow in the sun, in case people didn’t know that. And then when you save seed at the end—you don’t really know who crossed with who, who the bee flew to first, second, third, in what order and crossed with who. But what do you do? You let the seed just ripen, and you put bags over the heads, or what do you do?

A. I wait until they’re not quite ripe, actually. Because once they’re ripe, the birds just go nuts over them, and I oftentimes lose them all then. So often right when the sepals on the back of the seedhead are starting to yellow, I’ll cut off the whole seedhead and bring it inside, and it’ll finish drying down and ripening indoors.

I do that with a lot of seeds I’m saving. I harvest them actually just before they’re ripe. Because a lot of seeds, especially flower seeds, when they’re ripe, they tend to shatter. The seedpod opens up and they spill everywhere. So often when they’re a little bit green is the easiest time to harvest them. Bring them in, put them in the paper bag, and then they can shatter at their leisure and nothing eats them.

Q. So that’s kind of a little bit about your sunflower adventure. And I hope we’re going to be able to talk again about it as it evolves and see what happens, get some pictures or whatever later in the year. But have you been shopping for more flowers?

Solar Flashback calendula Wild Garden SeedBecause you got me thinking when we talked about doing this program. I thought, “Oh, flowers. I should add more flowers.” Because basically my vegetable garden, I always have some calendulas, and I love Frank Morton’s calendulas at Wild Garden Seed, for instance. He’s a great calendula breeder, among many other things. And the Flashback series and others. Just beautiful. And they’re great companions for vegetables. But I don’t have a flower garden, per se. [Above, one of the Flashback calendula.]

But I used to in the old years. I used to grow lots of other things in there too, at the ends of my vegetable beds, my raised beds. Have you been looking at anything else? Zinnias or, I don’t know, anything?

A. Well, I always grow a lot of zinnias. And this year also, it’s the Year of the Sunflowers/Year of the Sweet Peas, I think. [One of Joseph’s recent zinnia offspring, above.]

Q. Uh-oh. You’re having a dual Year of? O.K.

A. Yes.

Q. All right, all right, all right. So sweet peas. Well, that reminds me of our friend Marilyn Barlow with Select Seeds, with all her passion for so many years for her heirloom sweet peas and so forth.

A. Yes.

Q. So have you been collecting sweet pea seeds?

A. I’ve been collecting sweet peas and trying … because I’m now in a warmer zone, I tried sowing a bunch of them in the fall.

Q. Oh.

A. Yes. Because sweet peas don’t like the heat of the summer. So normally in the North, I had to start them indoors really really early and place them out as soon as you possibly can, so they have time to grow before it gets hot. But now I’m in Zone 7, so I think I’m warm enough that they actually … so I planted them about October, I think. Late October. And so far, so good. They’re still alive. We hit 6 degrees in this recent cold snap, and they’re still alive. So I’m interested to see how they perform. I have some I’m going to start starting indoors, too, for the Spring, so I can compare fall vs. spring sowing.

Q. Oh, that’s good. So you’re going to try it both ways; that’s great.

A. Yes. I mean, because I don’t know what I’m doing as I said, in my new climate. [Laughter.]

Q. But you do. You’re just disoriented by being relocated. Yes.

A. Yes. So but that’s my strategy. And I think again, I love doing some seeds because it’s easy to buy a packet of seeds and sow some indoors, some outdoors. Put some in a drier spot, a wetter spot. Just plant them around in different ways. And then I can actually see what’s going to do best in what conditions, in my actual garden.

Q. Where else have you found some interesting sweet peas to try?

A. Well, I ordered some from a place in England called Owl’s Acre.

Q. What’s it called?

A. Owl, like the bird. Owl’s Acre.

Q. Oh, Owl. Owl’s Acre. Oh, crazy. I’ve never heard of it.

A. Apparently, they cater to people who grow them for shows and exhibitions and stuff, which I’m not that devoted. [Laughter.] But they have a huge, huge list of all these different really cool ones. And sweet peas are their specialty. They also had some interesting species that I hadn’t grown. So they’ve got one called Lathyrus chloranthus [left, from Owl’s Acre website] which is a yellow-green color that looks cool. So I’m trying some other species of those, just to see. I’m hoping some of the other species might be a little more heat-tolerant and keep up going all the way through the summer, but we’ll find out.

Q. All right. So we’re on an adventure there, too.

A. As always!

Q. And you said you like zinnias. I mean, the world of zinnias. I mean, there’s such a diversity. And I have to say, I love either the single color where you can pick your favorite color or two, like the Benary’s Giants. And I first saw those a million years ago at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which has a great assortment of flower seeds as well, right?

A. Yes, definitely. Mm-hmm.

Q. And I love the orange ones and the green, the chartreuse ones. And I would grow those every year for a while. But now, I’m kind of loving the old-fashioned style, the multi-colored kind of, that have mahogany and gold-y kind of colors and do you know what I mean?

A. Yes.

Q. I don’t even know the names of some of them, but…

A. I think that’s … Oh, the species, haageana.

Q. Haageana, yes, indeed. And so I’m kind of loving those even more at the moment. But I don’t know. Are you growing any zinnias this year down there?

A. I’m growing some. And again, I like to collect and save my own seeds. So what I have is sort of an evolving strain of my favorites. One that’s really cool is, if you can find it, is a strain called ‘Whirlygig.’  [Below, ‘Whirlygig’ from Select Seeds.]

Q. ‘Whirligig’?

A. Which is actually a hybrid between the standard zinnias, and then the haageana that you mentioned, that have the multi-colored petals. And they have some really interesting multi-colored, individual petals with different shades on the same petal, that can be really, really cool. It’s a little hard to find. And I don’t think the strain has been maintained very well, so it’s not many doubles. It’s mostly singles. But it’s a really interesting color diversity there.

Q. So that’s another one. Aren’t there some now that look like Scabiosa? Did I make that up? No, I didn’t make that up. That’s a true thing.

A. No. And I think … I’m trying to remember. Yes. I grew one. They’ve been around forever. It’s an old strain, it’s not been maintained very well. And I grew them four, five years ago. And I grew out 20 plants and only one of them actually had the form as advertised.

Q. Yes. But I’m seeing more people have them now. Because I think more colors have been cleaned up and are being brought out. So that’s another thing to look for.

A. Yes. I think they’ve been reselected. And it’s nice. This is when I look at a catalog like Johnny’s Selected Seeds or Select Seeds, because they don’t list everything. They list stuff that they’ve actually tested and it’s good. So I see it in their catalog, I know it’s actually going to come true from seed. There’s some other sources. I like ordering from Stokes, because they have a huge list—but they just list everything. Whether it’s good or bad, it’s just everything.

Q. Right.

A. And I like Select Seeds. It’s a little more curated, I guess. And so when I see it in her catalog I think, “O.K., it’s a good strain,” and I’ll try it again.

Q. Yes. I think that the Scabiosa-type zinnias that has been brought out recently, I think they’re called Zinderella. I think that’s what they are, the Zinderella series. And I think there’s a peach color, and a purple color now. So that’s kind of interesting. They’re really different looking. Not your average, everyday zinnia. [Above, ‘Zinderella Purple’ from Select Seeds.]

A. Yes, they look really cool.

Q. And I’m always wanting to delve back into marigolds, which of course is where many of us began. If we began growing annual flowers frequently, that was the first one. Even when we were a kid, we might have grown a marigold.

A. I grew a marigold the year I started kindergarten. My first plant I ever grew from a seed.

Q. See? How did I know? Seriously. I mean, I kind of want to delve into those, and I haven’t in a long time. There are really big ones, like Peace Seedlings has some really massive, big one—not those tiny little dwarf silly ones with the big heads on tiny little dumpy plants. But big plants with big flowers. And then of course down to the ferny foliage that the Signets and others that are little and have little flowers and ferny foliage. I like them, and I even like the way they smell, to tell you the truth.

A. I love the way they smell. I was going to just say that. Some people hate them, but I love the way they smell.

Q. You mentioned that you’d been on an adventure with native Floridian sunflowers. [Laughter.] What about if we were wanting to grow more sort of native flowers? Whether they’re perennial or annual. Do you have some sources that you like? Do you want to recommend to us to browse through for sort of native things?

A. Well one I want to mention, and I think I mentioned it before, is Gardens North. She’s up in Canada. And she is not exclusively natives, but very, very heavy on natives. And especially if you’re in cold climate, so she’s up in Ottawa. So good Zone 4-, 5-hardy stuff. And she just announced she’s retiring after this year, so this is the last chance. So I would definitely check out her list. It’s lots of really interesting plants you’re not going to find anywhere else. Mostly perennials, and a lot of natives. This is your last chance to get access to a lot of really, really cool things.

Q. Gardens North.

A. Gardens North. And Prairie Moon is another great one for native plants, native perennials, that I really love. And they also sell a lot of seeds, and also some plants and bare-root stuff. So if you don’t want to start from seed, they have a lot of options there.

And then the other one is Alplains. And he’s out in, I think, Colorado, so he’s more Western U.S. So depending on what climate zone you’re in, they’re better … If you’re in a drier climate, they have a lot of really great native Penstemon and all these things that are really well adapted to sort of Western drier climates, that struggle sometimes in the Eastern wet, but some really beautiful interesting native plants from him.

Q. Totally out of left field. I realize remembering from looking through the seed catalogs last night. Nigella. Have you grown Nigella in a long time? Do you know Nigella, or is it Nigella damascena or whatever?

A. Yes.

Q. So when I grew it a million years ago, we kind of had these puffball-y like things and this ferny foliage. It was close to the ground, and then it had blue flowers. And I see there’s a different species. I think it’s Nigella papillosa, maybe, or something. And it’s kind of purple-y color, and some doubles and extra-showy seedpods. And have you tried any nigellas recently? [Above, from Johnny’s, Nigella papillosa ‘Delft Blue.’]

A. So I actually tried some of those as a fall sowing down here.

Q. Oh, cool. Oh, I can’t wait.

A. So I’ve grown them in the spring. Yes. I was like, “Oh, Nigella. I haven’t grown that in years.” And I love them.

Q. Me, too.

A. The first time I fell in love with them, I saw a picture. I think it was in an English garden book when I was a teenager. And they planted them around bearded irises. And then the bearded iris flowers were floating in this froth of it, because the foliage is just so light and fluffy.

Q. It’s beautiful, Yes.

A. So I hadn’t grown them in years. And then someone said, “Oh, yes, we plant them in the fall down in the South.” So I sowed a bunch of them this fall. We’ll see how that does. And I sowed some of them in the fall and I’ll sow them again in the spring. I think they’re something that doesn’t transplant well. You really need to kind of sow directly in place, but really beautiful.

more from joseph

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I’LL BUY A COPY of Joseph Tychonievich’s “Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is comment in the box at the bottom of the page, answering this question:

What annual flower(s) are you perhaps going to grow this year–and are there some you always grow (like I do calendulas and oftent he silver-leaf sunflower)?

No answer or feeling shy? Just say something liker “Count me in” and I will, but an answer is even better. I’ll draw a winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. Good luck to all. US and Canada only.

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. 15, 2018 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).

  1. Nancy Freid says:

    Oh can’t wait till spring arrives here. Love my flowers. Grow several kinds of sunflowers, perennials, annuals and bi’s. Can’t seem to have enough of variety. Always looking for more and new ones.

  2. Andrea says:

    Nigella for me this year, along wirh sunflowers, campanula, zinnia, hollyhocks and glads. The more the merrier. 150 days to summer.

  3. Audrey Hite says:

    Sunflowers were my DAD’s favorite flower. He had s postage stamp plot in the city and beside a few European favorite vegetables there was the sunflower. And in his memory I too do the same. Always trying a smaller one though. I also love sweet peas, but living in zone 5 that is an impossible dream.
    Did you notice my email address is the Hungarian for sunflower? My love for the flower and my DAD live on.
    Thank You.

  4. Dee Waddell says:

    I always grow annual poppies and Formosa lilies. They both produce a gazillion seeds so I have plenty to share with friends. I save seeds from a mauve colored zinnia that butterflies seem to prefer over other colors.

  5. Gregory Butera says:

    I just went the other way from Virginia to Michigan! I’m itching to build my new gardens but it’s gonna be too cold for a while!
    Having to learn timing on a whole new zone is a fun challenge.

    I love planting zinnia and poppies. But snapdragons are one of my all time favorites too.

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