“Plant breeding is easy. Under the right conditions … you can hardly help but breed new varieties. Just nature and a little careful weeding will all but do it for you.”
Joseph Tychonievich’s warm, friendly, and encouraging voice is central to his new book introducing the home gardener to the world of plant breeding—a task most of us have long since left to experts. Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener flips that notion on its market-driven head, and encourages home gardeners to take back the process and have some fun in doing so.
Chapter one begins with a historical look at plant breeding beginning with the story of teosinte, an ancient grass that today we know as corn—“one of the most productive and useful plants humans have ever grown.” Traditional breeding practices are defined as a practical—if time consuming—collaboration between plants and gardeners. Seeds were planted, crops assessed, and seed was saved from those plants that were the most productive, flavorful, or otherwise successful. The process of sorting and selecting, year after year, fell to the grower to execute.
Today, producing new plants has largely been outsourced to laboratories and factory farms. However, flavor, fragrance, form, and performance mean something very different to home gardeners than commercial concerns for uniformity, control, and a plant’s performance on the retail table or within an industrial agriculture framework.
Subsequent chapters guide the gardener through the details of setting breeding goals and creating new plants. “The Birds, the Bees, and the Tweezers” charmingly outlines plant anatomy and controlling the process of pollination with tips on making crosses, growing on the “babies,” and keeping track of your work.
“Beyond the Backyard” takes a look at advanced techniques and introduces a more complicated lexicon that includes sterility, marker-assisted selection, and polyploidy “… the condition of having one or more extra sets of chromosomes.” While admittedly more sophisticated than most of us are inclined—or equipped—to undertake at home, the author asserts that “understanding the principles behind how they work will give you an educated take on the politically charged issue of genetic engineering and an insight into the origins of some commercial varieties.”
Specific guidelines are included for a small selection of flowers and vegetables from the “notoriously promiscuous” columbine to the almighty homegrown tomato where flavor reigns supreme and opinions and preferences are as diverse as the folks who grow them.
A modest resource section at the end of the book offers suggestions for further reading and points curious backyard breeders toward the wide world of websites, online discussion groups, and plant and seed vendors that serve as an ark, protecting heirlooms young and old for future generations.
Lorene Edwards Forkner, editor