Joseph Tychonievich’s enthusiastic and well written account of the joys and challenges of home-based selective plant breeding draws on his lifetime of breeding plants. The aim of his book is to encourage home growers to try crossing their favourite varieties of flowers and vegetables to optimize flavour, colour, disease and insect resistance, and suitability for local growing conditions.
While the encouragement is pitched to backyard gardeners, it would well serve organic growers and hobby farmers who want to bring unique ornamentals and vegetables to market. The large number of examples of the plants he works with leads me to think that his gardens must be extensive and that it would be an advantage to have a garden larger than mine to try to breed some of the plants he describes.
Happily, for Canadian gardeners, he lives in Michigan in Zone 5, and his examples often include mention of the climate challenges he faces.
The foundations of this book are two very readable chapters about plant reproduction and genetics. Chapter three, entitled The Birds, The Bees and the Tweezers, explains reproduction in flowering garden plants and the various means by which different plants are pollinated. The latter information is then used to explain the different ways to cross pollinate plants manually for the many different shapes and structures of their flowers.
Chapter four, Genetics Made Easy, explains the heritability rules that govern the cross breeding of plants and how new varieties are produced and stabilized.
For those interested in the more commercial forms of plant production there is a separate short chapter explaining how the commercial seed producers develop new varieties, including genetic engineering. Although Tychonievich does not editorialize about these techniques, it is quite clear that he favours local producers creating and owning their own seeds over commercial development.
Recognizing that many backyard gardeners have limited space in which to experiment, Tychonievich encourages gardeners to use seed development networks to find and share new varieties of plants.
One great example of such networks is the Dwarf Tomato Project initiated by participants in the Tomatoville message board. Backyard gardeners from both hemispheres and many climate zones tested crosses of various tomatoes. The group was able to do a large number of field trials in a relatively short space of time and identify a number of new varieties of small tomato plants suitable for patios and small gardens. As a result of their efforts, there are now many more types of tomatoes available for planting in small spaces with a great selection of colours and flavours. The collective effort led to many better tasting varieties than those available from commercial seed houses.
For those who want to try systematic plant breeding, Tychonievich offers guidelines for evaluating and selecting new crosses, keeping records, naming new varieties and sharing seeds. In his last chapter, he provides an extensive discussion of how he has bred new varieties of plants. The ornamentals he describes are columbines, coleus, daffodils, dianthus, hollyhocks, snapdragons and zinnias. The vegetables are beans, cabbage and other brassicas, corn, lettuce, squash and tomatoes.
I was happy to see all but one (corn) of the veggies I grow and whose seeds I save in his examples. Last year, my seed saving turned up a new fuzzy skinned orangey red tomato—an accidental cross of a yellow peach tomato with Ottawa red. Having read this book, I have a better idea of how to systematically produce such interesting crosses.
My first breeding project after reading this book will be crossing lettuce varieties because they are relatively easy to do and take less space to try to the seed. For the others, I will leave the cross breeding to the breezes and the insects. I also hope to search out several of the recommended seed saver networks to try new varieties of vegetables that other backyard gardeners have created.
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