Adventures in Hybridizing

My initial foray into hybridizing was rather reluctant. I'd never really considered doing my own hybridizing, mostly because I felt that I didn't have enough space to have an effective hybridizing program. But then I had some one-on-one time with Jean Witt and helped her with some divisions in the beds that she maintains at her retirement community. She was still doing hybridizing... I figured I had as much space as she did, so why not see what I could see? Plus, I was beginning to wonder what would happen if older hybrids were crossed with new hybrids; maybe older genes could strengthen newer colors and patterns. I realized that I needed to be cautious about the crosses I would consider due to the space limitations, but then on the other hand one cross could produce no seed or 100 seeds and germination could range anywhere from none to all. Essentially, results would be entirely unpredictable.

One of my aversions to hybridizing was the concept that special tools were needed, and very controlled conditions. A typical hybridizer's kit would include tweezers, a magnifying glass, camel hair paint brushes and delicate scissors. But why all the fuss? After conferring with hybridizers and doing a lot of reading, my first crosses were made by simply removing an anther from one flower and gently pollinating a stamen with it and removing the petals of the pollinated flower to prevent further pollination by insects; crude but effective. I still follow the same process, but now I select the plant parent flower ahead of time and remove the petals a day before the cross is planned, and then cover the pollinated flower with organza bags. The organza bags prevent wind born pollenation as well as possible insect pollination, and also prevent seed loss if I can't harvest the ripe pod before it pops open.

My first results were kind of exciting and disappointing. I knew that one cross could provide 100's of seeds, so I was a bit disappointed when I had fewer than 90 seeds from 4 crosses. Hey, what can you do other than work with what Mother Nature has provided? So I soaked and planted them as described in 'Breaking the Rules', separated the seedlings into their own growing cells in March, and then planted them out in late May. I was surprised at how fast they grew, and was even more surprised when some of them bloomed after their first year in the ground. I was the proudest papa in the world! The variety of the patterns and colors was amazing! The possibilities of future introductions were in front of me, although some were quite obviously not going to make the first cut.

Typically it takes a minimum of five years to reach the introduction stage. The first two or three of years are simply growing to maturity and evaluating plant vigor and bloom; first time bloom is not always indicative of the final, mature, bloom, so must be allowed for full evaluation. However, after their second growing season, the time had come to start eliminating the obvious culls and those that were obviously too similar to existing hybrids or malformed, and take a hard look at those remaining. The "thinning" of this first batch of seedlings was bittersweet. It was easy to compost those first culls as space is limited and it can't be wasted on non-performers. But eliminating some of the others proved to be a bit more difficult as much time was spent considering whether different growing conditions might be beneficial, or simply more elbow-room after thinning would give them a chance to prove their worth. In the long run I kept more than I needed to, but it was all part of the learning process.

In 2016 our first seedlings were introduced. Only time and public opinion will determine whether these choices were good ones!