The Intersection of Plants and People

Tinkering with Plant Genetics

Author and hybridizing expert Joseph Tychonievich traded emails with PlantXing to share what his garden experiments have yielded this year.

Joseph Tychonievich. Photo courtesy of Joseph Tychonievich.

Joseph Tychonievich. Photo courtesy of Joseph Tychonievich.

Tychonievich’s book, Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener: How to Create Unique Vegetables and Flowers (Timber Press, 2013) offers growers a new way of working with their backyard produce. Tychonievich (pronounced tie-KON-uh-vich) spends much of the spring and summer matchmaking his favorite plants and tinkering with them from season to season to create his own unique varieties.

Besides writing and breeding plants, Tychonievich manages Arrowhead Alpines Rare Plants Nursery in Fowlerville, Michigan, and is a frequent guest on National Public Radio’s The Splendid Table.

PlantXing: What first drew you into hybridizing?

Joseph: The first moment I remember really wanting to breed plants was when I was getting into gardening and reading a book about roses that warned not to start roses from seed because they’re complex hybrids and the seedlings wouldn’t look like the parent plants. My reaction was, “New roses that don’t look like what I started with? COOL!” And it still kind of is. I love the idea of getting to bring into being something new and different.

A corn project by Tychonievich produced these jelly-bean-like, colorful kernels. Photo: Joseph Tychonievich

A corn project by Tychonievich produced these colorful, jelly-beanlike kernels. Photo: Joseph Tychonievich

PlantXing: What kinds of hybridizing projects did you work on this spring and summer?

Joseph: So many…I’ve been playing with beautifully colored corn, winter-hardy gladiolus, a whole swarm of snapdragons, some squash, and some lovely, long-flowering sunflowers.

Fragrant snapdragons hybridized by Joseph Tychonievich grace his garden. Photo: Joseph Tychonievich

Fragrant snapdragons bred by Joseph Tychonievich.
Photo: Joseph Tychonievich

PlantXing: What were your most hopeful results in terms of hybrids you’re working on? 

Joseph: I’m very excited with my work on snapdragons. There are a lot of really beautiful species with lovely leaves, different growth habits, beautiful flower forms and nice fragrance. I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but things are starting to look very cool indeed!

PlantXing: Did anything not turn out as well as you had hoped?

Joseph: Yeah… I was trying to breed a squash variety that had the flesh of a spaghetti squash and the delicious hull-less seeds of the so-called naked-seeded varieties like ‘Lady Godiva.’ I got the spaghetti flesh, but no hull-less seeds. I’ll have to keep working on that one.

A bouquet of the hardy gladiolus. Photo: Joseph Tychonievich

A bouquet of the hardy gladiolus. Photo: Joseph Tychonievich

PlantXing: Do you have any stable, new varieties you’re ready to introduce?

Joseph: The only thing I know for sure will be on the market next year is the latest in my rather silly plantago breeding project — you know, that little weed in your lawn. My latest has purple, frilly leaves and flowerlike stacks of leafy bracts on the inflorescence. It has been a fun project, but it is still essentially a weed.

 There are several things that I think are finished, but I want to observe in the garden for a couple years to make sure they keep performing well. Most hopeful about a very long-blooming perennial poppy and a hardy artichoke.

Plantago, a weed Tychonievich has domesticated. Photo: Joseph Tychonievich

Plantago, a weed Tychonievich has domesticated. Photo: Joseph Tychonievich

PlantXing: What does a hybridizer do to keep busy during the long, Michigan winters?

Joseph: Well, this one works at a nursery with lots of greenhouses, so I keep very busy with that. I’m also sowing out seeds for the next year’s breeding, spending time tracking down unusual species and varieties to add to my breeding projects, and planning what crosses I want to make next year.

One of Tychonievich's new obsessions, Kale 'Gulog.' Photo: Joseph Tychonievich

One of Tychonievich’s latest obsessions, Kale ‘Gulog Stars.’ Photo: Joseph Tychonievich

PlantXing: In your book, you write about some heirloom varieties that you like to work with. Which are your current favorites?

Joseph: Well, this isn’t an heirloom, but I’m in love with the Kale ‘Gulag Stars’ from Adaptive Seeds. Very beautiful, delicious, vigorous, and (this appeals to the breeder in me) extremely variable, so I have all sorts of fun picking out the forms I like best to save seed from.

Tychonievich BookPlantXing: What advice would you offer to people interested in trying their hand at hybridizing in their own gardens?

Joseph: Go for it! I think people overestimate how difficult hybridizing can be. Pick something you love to grow, and try dabbing some pollen around. It takes hardly any time at all to cross-pollinate your two favorite petunias or even just plant a bunch of your favorite sunflowers together and collect the seeds that bees have hybridized. Once you get started, you’ll probably get hooked.

For more information on Joseph Tychonievich’s plant breeding projects, check out

plantxing endnote (2)

2 comments on “Tinkering with Plant Genetics

  1. Amy
    October 6, 2013

    Great feature, wag at an interesting guy! I love the beautiful weeds.


  2. Benita Green Lee
    October 6, 2013

    Thanks! His book explains basic plant genetics and hybridizing techniques in a very approachable way. It’s easy to get excited about the endless possibilities breeding plants can bring.


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