July 27, 2013

Book Review - Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener

Grab your iced lemon verbena tea, for on this rainy, summer day,
 I think I have the perfect book for you to read in that rocking chair on your porch. 

I think many of us who garden, eventually get to this place where we want to either save our own seed, or to even try cross-breeding our own plants. If you are like me, and curious about knowing more about how to create your own heirloom tomatoes, maybe a 'family breed' to hand down to your children and their offspring ( it's doable!), then I have the perfect book for you. I have just finished reading PLANT BREEDING FOR THE HOME GARDENER How to Create Unique Vegetables & Flowers, (2013, Timber Press), by Joseph Tychonievich. A just-published book that explains everything that you will need to know about breeding your own plants.

Joseph Tychonievich making a cross between a fragrant yellow clivia with a wide-leafed peach clivia,
 in my greenhouse this past May.  He just couldn't help himself. Yep - iPhone photo - so a little blown!
Every so often a book comes across my desk that really interests me, I mean - I love books, and read about 20 a year, but there are some that I anticipate, and some that I reread. This fits into both of those categories. Thanks to young plantsman Joseph Tychonievich ( I mean, he's like 29!), who wrote this great and handy little book, we who garden casually can now try some simple plant breeding, in an informed way. No need to read a college-level Botany text book, since Joseph has done that for us - extracting only the information that we will need, and then making it all sound so easy. 

First off, I want to say that as a graphic design judge and speaker, this book as one of the nicest book cover designs that I have ever seen for a gardening book. Good Job Timber Press!

We plant geeks often agree on many things, such as our favorite ' secret' varieties in vegetables
such as this Zucchini 'Costata Romanesco' - an heirloom, ribbed variety preferred for both it's texture
and flavor. It's common only in Rome (where people kind-of know something about food).

On a yummy note, my lunch today consisted of a freshly picked Romanesco Zucchini  with
some fresh-from-the-garden sweet corn. Keep it simple: melt some French butter, and saute quickly to
retain crispness - I add some freshly chopped summer savory to top it off, and some coarse salt.

Joseph and I share many interests: we both started getting into plants around the same age ( although, I am much older than he), we both love alpine plants, and  rare woodland plants, while reading his book, I discovered that we even share our love for some of the same vegetable varieties ( Costata Romanesco - the heirloom Romanesco-type of Zucchini which remains crispy and nutty when picked young ( I just picked some today!), and the rare heirloom 'Oaxacan Green' flint corn variety (used primarily for corn meal), which I planted when I just started to read this book last month ( mine is now 5 feet tall!).

 My Oaxacan Green Heirloom Corn is nearly 5 feet tall.
I was surprised to read that Jospeh prefers this heirloom variety for
making corn meal.
Another similarity between Joseph and I is that we both started 'playing' with crossing plants while in high school ( I, with radishes, and he with -well, most everything in his garden!). OK - I am about 20 years older than Joseph, and never chose a career in horticulture, but Joseph did, ( thank God!) and since graduating Michigan State University a couple of years ago, he is today not only a published author, but very well known and respected as a plantsman amongst the gardening elite. While he was visiting with me this past May,  we spent some time crossing plants in my greenhouse, touring local gardens and talking a lot about plant breeding, and his just released book.

The book is weak on illustrations ( my only complaint) but the content here is king.
Joseph takes a challenging subject and clarifies it, distilling complex information into
small, digestible bits, enabling many of us to try cross-breeding ourselves.

In PLANT BREEDING FOR THE HOME GARDENER, Joseph shares many interesting stories about his youth and college years, when he first became interested in crossing his own plants, (Carnations to Sweet Williams, Hollyhocks to Roses, plus: Beans, Corn, Cabbages, Peppers), when it came to experimenting with back-yard breeding Joseph was tireless.

What illustrations do exist, are well done, and informative.

PLANT BREEDING FOR THE HOME GARDENER will inform beginners who know little to nothing about plant breeding , yet he never talks down to the newbie.  Joseph integrates reasoning, explaining the logic behind the science, so we the reader understands the 'science'. You know -  the 'reason why'  the science works.)

If you are more of an expert, relax, as Joseph also doesn't 'dumbify' the science. So very refreshing in our sound-byte world of 'just enough information to get get by'. As an expert home gardener myself, who understand the basics of plant breeding but who needed a refresher course, this book covered all of that and more. It brought me up-to-date on new subjects such as Genetic Engineering  (settle down!), Marker-Assisted Selection ( you know - extract a specific sugar enhancing DNA from one corn plant and then add it to another corn plants’ DNA in the lab to make a new corn variety which holds its sweetness longer), or Embryo Rescue methods ( You must remember this fact  - as it is how the lilies known as ‘Orienpets’ came about – wow, I never knew that! I thought that they were just crossed in the field!). These are all facts which may have been left out of that high school biology course that you took a decade or two ago.

I urge you to order this book - really. It's a great summer read, even if you have just the slightest interest in genetics or plant breeding, or even if you never plan on breeding your own Zinnias or Squash, the basic knowledge provided helps one understand the differences between F1 and F2 hybrids, cloning, plant genes, so that the next time someone goes all 'Monsanto' on you, you will actually know the real facts (i.e. the 'science'), and you will be able to respond in an informed way rather than simple repeating information seen in a documentary or by a blogger who doesn't know the difference between Polyploidy and Paulie D.

If there is one point that you retain from this post, I hope that is is this: If you are going to try saving your own garden seeds, or even try some amateur plant breeding, then take the time to learn how to do it properly. There are many seeds ( most, actually) from your home garden that will not grow into the same plant that you saved it from. But there are many that might even be better. If you are going to take the time to save seed, to dry, harvest, clean, preserve, sow and grow your own plants, then learn the facts, and this book is the perfect handbook for doing so.

Joseph at the New England Wildflower Society's Garden in the Woods, this past May, admiring their trillium breeding program.


  1. Timely post about this book for me...I just got it in the mail today! I thought Timber Press was going to send me one, but if they did, I never got it. I finally just bought one! I'm surprised by the size of it. Thought it would be bigger and have more photos. I'm glad the content is awesome. Besides transferring pollen a time or two (and then forgetting to keep track), I've never tried this. Looking forward to it.

  2. Julia Homer4:37 PM

    Great shot of the Trillium garden at Garden in the Woods, which has just been designated an accredited collection by the North American Plant Collections Consortium.


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