Plant breeding may appear on the surface to be too complicated for the average home gardener to do, but anyone can breed hybrid and open-pollinated vegetables and flowers if they have the knowledge and patience for it and put in the effort. Joseph Tychonievich, a garden writer and plant breeder, joins me on the podcast to discuss the steps aspiring plant breeders need to know.
Joseph is the author of “Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener,” “Rock Gardening: Reimagining a Classic Style” and “The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food,” plus he hosts the “What’s Going on in the Garden?” podcast. He’s also a contributor to Fine Gardening and other gardening magazines, and he’s the editor of the North American Rock Garden Society quarterly journal. Before pursuing writing full-time, he earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Ohio State University and went on to work for rare plant nurseries in Japan and Michigan. He’s lived all over, most recently moving from Virginia to South Bend, Indiana.
A lifelong lover of plants and gardening, Joseph has always enjoyed growing plants from seeds and watching them develop. In fact, he asked for plants and seeds for his 5th birthday.
It was while raising violas and pansies from seed that Joseph became intrigued with plant breeding “They are really inclined to self-sow, and the bees like to make hybrids,” he says. He recalls being fascinated by the diverse hybrids that popped up — he had started with just a few varieties but all sorts of colors and shapes grew in subsequent seasons after self-sowing.
Joseph thinned the flower patch each year, keeping the flowers he liked best and roguing the others. After a few years, his violas and pansies had become custom colors, shapes and sizes that he preferred.
Plant breeding can be as simple as letting flowers self-sow and keeping the ones you like best, Joseph says. He also points out that seed savers are plant breeders, whether or not they think they are. The fact is, anytime they thin seedlings until the most vigorous are left, they are breeding better plants.
If you would like to read Joseph’s full primer on plant breeding, check out the show notes from the original presentation of our conversation.
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Plants reproduce via their flowers. The male part of a flower is the anthers, which contain pollen and are found in a ring around the center of a flower. The female part of a flower is called the pistil, found at the center. The tip of the pistil is the stigma, which receives pollen.
Pollen can be collected from a flower by picking it apart and looking for the anthers. That pollen can be applied to the stigma of another flower, and the receiving flower will produce seeds that are a mix of both parents.
Hand pollination can be fun but it can also feel like a lot of work. You could simply allow pollinators such as bees to make crosses for you at random. Joseph says Columbines and hollyhocks readily hybridize this way. But if you want to make crosses deliberately, you will need to prevent bees from getting into flowers.
Big flowers like squash blossoms can be taped shut. Smaller flowers can be protected with nylon mesh bags wrapped over the buds, or you can get tulle from a fabric store and cut it to the right size to wrap a flower.
“Usually when the flower is open and looking showy, that’s when they’re signaling pollinators to come in, and so that’s the right time for you, the human pollinator, to come in and make your crosses,” Joseph says.
A hybridized flower will yield hybrid seeds, but not hybrid fruit. For example, if you manually pollinate the flowers on a cherry tomato plant with pollen from a beefsteak tomato flower, you’ll still get cherry tomatoes. It’s the seeds inside those cherry tomatoes that will contain a mix of cherry tomato genetics and beefsteak tomato genetics. Grow out those seeds to be cherry-beefsteak hybrids.
Pollinating Self-Pollinating Flowers
Flowers with both male and female parts can self-pollinate, so keeping bees out is not enough. To prevent them from self-pollinating, you need to remove the male parts by going in before it has completely opened and cutting off the anthers. Then, to pollinate the flower yourself, apply pollen from the anthers of the father flower you have selected for your desired hybrid.
A new cross of two open-pollinated seeds is called a first-generation hybrid, or F1 hybrid.
“The first generation hybrid has exactly half its genes from one parent and exactly half its genes from another,” Joseph says.
If you started with two open-pollinated parents that both grow “true to seed,” the F1 hybrids will all look fairly identical.
“Then if you save seeds from your first-generation hybrids, the next generation is when all hell breaks loose — in a good way,” Joseph says. “That’s when all the traits of the two original parents get reshuffled in new combinations.” The size, shape and color become unpredictable. “That’s when you get to have fun, really picking out the ones that you like best.”
If you are breeding tomatoes, choose the plants you like best — the most vigorous with the ideal size fruit and best flavor — and then breed them for a few more generations to stabilize them. In each subsequent generation, by saving seeds only from the plants you liked best, you will cut the variability down by half. Around the fifth or sixth generation, you’ll get the predictability and uniformity that growers and seed sellers desire.
In the case of plants that are propagated from cuttings or grafting, multiple generations are not required to achieve stable offspring. You can keep cloning your ideal plant from cuttings, and those cuttings will be genetically identical to the original.
Breeding for Yourself Vs. Growing to Please Everyone
“Tastes really can vary quite dramatically,” Joseph says, noting that it’s one of the reasons why breeding your own fruit and vegetables is so fun. You can select offbeat flavors you love that are not for everybody.
Commercial growers will always aim for crowd-pleasers that are sweet and sour, with lots of sugar and lots of acid. As a home tomato breeder, you don’t need to worry about pleasing everyone. It’s your personal preference that matters — not the variety’s marketability.
Likewise, commercial breeders of table grapes always produce “sugar bombs” that are intensely sweet. Joseph says grapes have incredible, elaborate, complex flavors and can taste like a million different things, so foodies will enjoy home-bred grapes more than commercial grapes.
If you haven’t already listened to my conversation with Joseph Tychonievich about planting breeding for home gardeners, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Do you have experience making hybrids, either intentionally or unintentionally? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
Episode 004: Heirloom Tomatoes: Past, Present and Future with Craig LeHoullier
Episode 066: Tomatoland: The Dirty Truth of the Tasteless Tomato, with Barry Estabrook
Episode 125: Saving Seeds: The Basics, the Benefits and Beyond
Episode 166: Tracing the History of Heirloom Seeds, with Seed Savers Exchange
Episode 248: Dahlia Growing & Breeding, with Kristine Albrecht
joegardener blog: How Do I Grow Tomatoes?
joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Save Tomato Seeds
joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Know if Seeds Are Still Good
Organic Vegetable Gardening Summit – Catch the last two days, March 30th and 31st, from noon to 1 p.m. ET both days, to discover the importance of planning ahead and setting up your garden to conquer the many challenges that Mother Nature throws our way.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course. The course is designed to be a comprehensive guide to starting, growing, nurturing, and harvesting your favorite vegetables: no matter what you love to eat, no matter where you live, no matter your level of gardening experience. Enrollment closes on April 4. Enter code GROW20 at checkout for 20% off.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
Earthbound Expeditions: Great Gardens of Italy & France with Joe Lamp’l
“Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener” by Joseph Tychonievich
“Rock Gardening: Reimagining a Classic Style” by Joseph Tychonievich
“The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food: Step-by-Step Vegetable Gardening for Everyone” by Joseph Tychonievich and Liz Anna Kozik
What’s Going on in the Garden Podcast
Joseph Tychonievich Instagram: @tychonievich
The Splendid Table: “The Lynne Rossetto Kasper Tomato Plant Is Here”
Proven Winners ColorChoice – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com
Earth’s Ally – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com
Territorial Seed Company – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com
Greenhouse Megastore – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com – Enter code JOEGARDENER for 15% off your order
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.