The Hybridizer

hybrid pumpkinEvery  gardener at one time or another comes in contact with plant cultivars introduced as a result of the painstaking work of  someone who breeds plants. Bressingham gardens in England has a group of fine perennial plants marketed under the aegis of Blooms of Bressingham. There are countless other individuals who have devoted themselves to breeding towards a better plant.  Some hybrids are more disease resistant.  Some are more sturdy-others have larger flowers with interesting variations in color. The dogwood Venus, a cross between Cornus kousa, and Cornus nuttallii, was bred at Rutgers University by Elwin Orton.  His Venus dogwood, once it was introduced, took a gold medal at Chelsea.  Anyone who loves the landscape is all the better for the introduction of this tree.

hybrid pumpkinsI am thinking about hybridizing right now, as Rob has such a big love for the various forms and colors of pumpkins that he collects fruits from countless farms within a day’s drive of us. He cannot get enough of them.  Of course most pumpkins are grown to eat, or to carve for Halloween, but others are grown for their sheer beauty.  Every farmer who grows pumpkins is a hybridizer, whether they intend to be, or not.  Cucurbits are plants of the gourd family, and include melons, pumpkins, squash and cucumber. All of these plants, grown within range of one another, will cross pollinate with abandon. Squash flowers are huge-they intend to have progeny.  And progeny they do produce. Any pollen on the wind might settle in these giant flowers. As a result, every farm who grows curcurbits has their own distinctive offering of pumpkins and gourds. These hybrid crosses are random.  Some are beautiful, sturdy, and robust.  Others-not so much.

hybrid pumpkinsRob has been fortunate to meet some gardeners in the course of his pumpkin collecting whose big love is hybridizing these big fruits.  You are looking at pictures of pumpkins that are the result of a lifetime of careful breeding. The gentleman in question is in his late sixties, and has been hybridizing pumpkins for decades. He grows his pumpkins in a tunnel house, so he can eliminate accidental crosses. Pumpkins and squash take up an enormous amount of space as they grow.  The breeding process is slow, as not so many crosses can be made in a given year. His crosses are thoughtful, and methodical.

pumpkins 2015 (9)His current crop of fancy pumpkins sit in a shed.  They are not displayed on his farm stand, as they are not for sale. They are part of his breeding stock.  He will harvest the seed, and breed again. The near black pumpkin in my first picture with a brilliant orange waist-I have never seen anything like it.  The black pumpkin in my second picture-astonishing.  I know squash with dark green rinds-I am a fan of acorn squash, and eat them regularly over the winter.  But this black pumpkin is like nothing I have ever seen.

pumpkins 2015 (8)Anyone who grows plants has at one time or another placed a plant in their garden whose form, color and texture is a result of years of breeding.  Endless crosses that amount to nothing.  A few crosses that have promise.  And perhaps a few plants in a lifetime that are worthy of introduction.

IMG_6456I am an old school gardener-I admit to that. I favor plants that look good all season, in leaf and in bloom.  I like plants that are vigorous, and hardy.  I love plants that ask little, and perform willingly.  I love those plants that verge on the weedy side.   I see some perennial and shrubby plants that have been introduced that seem unlikely to survive the test of time.  Should I have a landscape client who is interested in the garden, I make sure that what I select for their garden has a history of great performance.  Nothing discourages a gardener more than failure. Some plant breeding quits too soon-before there is a cultivar worthy of introduction.

pumpkins 2015 (22)Keeping plants alive, and keeping plants thriving, is a big job. I can be challenged by it, despite my many years as a gardener.  One of the most important aspects of landscape design to me is to do what I can to insure success for my clients. Success in a garden encourages interest.  I mean to encourage others to garden.  Great plant hybridizers do a lot of this work for me. They spend years and thought developing plants that gardeners can grow.

pumpkins 2015 (23)The man who hybridized that black pumpkin does not make a living from his fancy pumpkins.  He grows acres of orange pumpkins that get shipped nation wide.  His tall thin pumpkins that sit up on their own are especially good looking.  We sold out of our group within two days.

pumpkins 2015 (10)All of his pumpkins, squash, and gourds have great color.  Many of them sport what we call witches warts. Rob loves the bumps.

IMG_5933But even his most simple pumpkins feature strong stems. The long stems are part and parcel of a fall fruit that delights the eye, and speaks to the harvest. I never knew how beautiful a pumpkin stem could be, until I saw his pumpkins.  Rob is a looker.  When he sees something that makes him look twice, he does what he can to foster a relationship. The pumpkins we have at Detroit Garden Works right now are all about the thoughtful work of a hybridizer with many years in the game. We so value his contribution to every garden.  And every front porch in the fall season.

pumpkin stemIf you are like me, you have wrongly picked up a pumpkin by its stem, and had that stem detach. Dang. I will confess that I have hot melt glued broken stems on to a pumpkin.  No pumpkin stem can stay intact, given the weight of most pumpkins. But for our current pumpkin collection. We have a breeder who means to meld the stem with the body of the fruit.

pumpkin stemImagine a hybridizer whose goal is to develop stems that come down onto the fruit.  Gripping stems. A stem which is integral with the fruit. What hybridizers imagine and breed for-so simple, but so important. A garden does imply a generous grip.  Some of that comes from plant breeders.  Some of that comes from us. The mix is a really good one.


Early Fall

saturated (6)The beginning of the fall season is a beginning to treasure.  All of the hard work growing from the spring through the summer of  comes to fruition. Literally. The tomatoes ripen. The farmers market is bursting with racks of brussel sprouts, giant rosettes of cabbage, and fresh and fragrant onions. Home vegetable gardens yields such that there is plenty for  neighbors and friends. The spring planted perennials have put on a lot of weight. The trees planted in the spring seem to have weathered the transplant shock, and look happier – more settled and comfortable. The memory of insults dealt to the landscape and garden from the hard winter past fade. No need now to remember them.   The beginning of fall can be the last chapter of a very good short story, or the last quarter mile of a long and exhausting run. Or both. There is a good amount of time before the fall sinks and sets in, to enjoy the fruits.

saturated (11)Fall is a favorite season for Rob.  He endures the heat of the summer.  Every plant gets watered as it should.  He good naturedly tolerates the glare.  Once the season begins to shift to fall, he is energized.  He is back and forth across every square inch of the shop, making changes appropriate to the season. Materials he has ordered for the fall season at the shop months ago arrive every day. Much to my delight, he tracks back and forth across a 100 mile radius from the shop, selecting pumpkins and gourds for his fall collection.

saturated (8)There are those gardeners who collect day lilies, or hostas.  Or perhaps they focus on wild flowers, or native plants.  Some love all manner of hardy ornamental grasses.  Some nurture their collection of African violets, or Japanese maples.  There are the rosarians, who keep the interest in great garden roses alive. When I had five acres of land, I lined out peonies in rows, like crops. The alpine plants, the lilies, the dahlias-every plant has a coterie of aficionados. The fans of gourds and the pumpkins are many. Illinois is the nation’s largest producer of pumpkins-over 12,000 acres of crop land are devoted to growing them. Though dwarfed by the Illinois production, Michigan is still the second largest producer of pumpkins and gourds. Though many carve the traditional orange pumpkin for Halloween, or use the pulp for pies, there are those who appreciate the sculptural shapes and colors.

saturated (12)About that color. My favorite part of the fall is how the low light saturates the color of everything it touches.  In summer, the sun high in the sky interrogates everything it touches. Sunny summer days are bright, and shadowless. The slanted and softer fall light brings saturated color back into the landscape. I suspect that Rob’s enchantment with the pumpkins and gourds is as much about color as the forms, textures and shapes. Fall color is term every gardener is familiar with. The leaves turning means a landscape ablaze in yellow, orange, red and purple.  An overcast summer day in a garden means any color will more intense. Never is any color in the garden more intensely representing than in the fall. The light from the sun highlights every plant from the side.  The fall garden appears as though it were on fire.

saturated (14)Every pumpkin or gourd that Rob chooses for his collection at the store has a story about color, texture, and shape behind it.  He will not buy any fall fruit that cannot stand up on its own.  He treasures the stem every bit as much as the fruit. He is as great with subtle fall color as he is with those those colors that blaze away. He probably has other criteria I am not aware of. Rob curates his collection. Every pumpkin and gourd could stand alone, and look great.  A grouping is a pleasure to be enjoyed throughout the fall.

saturated (19)The low fall light reveals texture in a spectacular way. This week was my first look at peanut pumpkins.

saturated (13)Equally astonishing is Rob’s collection of long stemmed pumpkins. He knows a grower who has been hybridizing pumpkins for 55 years. A long stem was a trait he sought. This was a friendship that has taken years to establish. Rob will visit him multiple times in late September.

saturated (22) I am so enjoying this warm late September sun.

aaaat the shop

pastel pumpkinspastel pumpkins


saturated (10)red, white, and wood

saturated (18)a saturated experience of orange

saturated (16)contrast

saturated (2)so orange, and so green.

saturated (3)red and white

pumpkins and gourdspumpkins and gourds

saturated (15)fall light

saturated (7)Last, but certainly not least, those big stems that come with pumpkins attached.


6006000160632_10001035_l Poeticus Recurvus
Narcissus, commonly known as daffodils or jonquils, flower in the spring in my zone from bulbs planted the previous fall.  They are native to southwestern Europe and North Africa. From Wikipedia,  “The species are native to meadows and woods in southwest Europe and North Africa with a center of diversity in the Western Mediterranean, particularly the Iberian peninsula. Both wild and cultivated plants have naturalised widely, and were introduced into the Far East prior to the tenth century. Narcissi tend to be long-lived bulbs, which propagate by division, but are also insect-pollinated.” It is generally accepted that there are about 50 species of narcissus, and another 60 known naturally occurring hybrids. Named narcissus hybrids number in the many thousands. The species daffodil Poeticus var. Recurvus pictured above is commonly known as Old Pheasant’s Eye.  It is remarkably tolerant of wet soil.  The delicate flowers bloom atop a grassy foliage usually 12″-15″ tall. It is sweetly fragrant, and very persistent. Planted in moisture retentive soil that has a decent percentage of organic material, it will increase and bloom for decades with little or no care. The flowers are diminutive and graceful; up close, the blooms are stunning.

narc_triandrus_lemon_drops_mainThe narcissus Poeticus does not remotely resemble the large brassy yellow trumpet flowered daffodil that is common in spring gardens throughout the US. From the Missouri Botanical Garden website (a plant reference I use frequently), “King Alfred was introduced in 1899 and quickly became recognized as the standard yellow trumpet daffodil. And it remained the standard until the 1950s when new yellow trumpet daffodils featuring larger flowers, better form and/or better performance became available. Since the 1950s, ‘King Alfred’ production from bulb growers has decreased rapidly to the point where this daffodil is not currently available in commerce today except through a very limited number of specialty nurseries. But the legendary name lives on. Most bulbs sold today as ‘King Alfred’ are not in fact ‘King Alfred’ but are large all-yellow look-alikes (such as ‘Dutch Master’) that are being marketed under the famous ‘King Alfred’ name by use of such descriptive labeling as “improved King Alfred” or “King Alfred type”.” In my opinion, bigger and more showy is not necessarily better. There are so many species and heirloom varieties of narcissus that are so much more beautiful in flower than the standard large yellow daffodil. The narcissus triandrus variety “Lemon Drops” pictured above was bred and introduced by Grant Mitch in 1956. The small nodding flowers are especially fragrant, and have a natural subtle beauty.

narc_trumpet_pink_silk_extra_3_It is no secret that I am a big fan of spring flowering bulbs. Though planting those dormant brown orbs in the chill of the late fall is not my favorite garden activity, I truly enjoy how that planting creates a sense of anticipation for the spring. There is a wide range of spring flowering bulbs that are well worth planting, but I have a special affection for the narcissus. They are truly perennial when properly sited. They perform reliably. They increase over the years with little or no maintenance. I have clumps that have never been divided, that still bloom profusely. Deer want nothing to do with them. Narcissus Pink Silk is a descendant of that famed first “pink” daffodil Mrs. R.O. Backhouse, and was introduced in 1970. This heirloom daffodil is as lovely now as it was 45 years ago. There is nothing over bred or flashy about it.

spring3 DallasNarcissus make fabulous and long lasting cut flowers, provided they are conditioned properly. The stems exude an irritating sap when cut.  I condition them for at least 24 hours before arranged them with other flowers. I do deadhead my daffodils when they are done flowering, as I would rather that they expend their energy expanding their clump via the production of offsets than setting seed. The above pictured daffodil Dallas was bred in 1942, and is classed in division 3-daffodils with small cups.  Daffodils are classed in 13 different categories, which relate to size, color and shape.

moschatus-3s.jpgThe species daffodil Moschatus pictured above is large flowered, but subtle in form and color. Many hybrid narcissus have this daffodil in its parentage. Famed American garden writer Louise Beebe Wilder called this her favorite daffodil: “The solitary pale nodding flower has an infinite appeal, a fragile tender grace that I think is not duplicated in the race….No more exquisite flower could be found for a cool, tended corner….Not to know this daffodil is to be poor in experience.” This photo by Becky Matthews was taken in rural Tennessee in March 2004. The species daffodils are more likely to “naturalize”, meaning the clumps will increase in size, and persist for many years. The fancier, newer hybrids may not perform as well over the long run.

narc_pink_passionale_mainI have more than a few large clumps of the daffodil Pink Passionale in my garden.  Enough so that I can cut them and bring them indoors in the spring. This large cup variety was a favorite of garden writer Henry Mitchell.  It is easy to see why.  I brought a bouquet of them to Rob this past spring.  That vase of flowers encouraged him to look into assembling a daffodil collection for Detroit Garden Works this fall.  All of the varieties under discussion here are on his A list.

BroughshaneThe daffodil Broughshane was bred by an Irish hybridizer, Guy Wilson. From 1930 and into the early 1960’s, he was widely acclaimed as one of the best breeders of white narcissus.

Narcis Sea Princess _2164.jpg_f1The narcissus Sea Princess is a small cupped narcissus bred in 1984.  It is perfect for naturalizing.

DA980 April QueenDaffodil April Queen was first offered for sale in 1936. The blooms are reputed to be one of the longest lasting in flower in the daffodil kingdom.  The small orange cup is strikingly beautiful.

Croft-16-Daffodils-Mrs-Langtrydaffodil Mrs. Langtry, introduced in England in the late 19th century.

narc_jonquilla_sailboat_extra_1__1 fragrant multi floweringThe narcissus jonquilla Sailboat features wind swept petals-thus the name. The jonquilla group features narcissus with multiple blooms on a stem that are quite fragrant. I am sure you are seeing by now how difficult is it to choose which daffodils to grow. Interested in the classification system for daffodils?  daffodil classes

narc_small_princess_zaide_mainThe miniature narcissus Princess Zaide, how could we forget this one?  late flowering, shallow cupped, and sporting a chartreuse eye.

Narcissus_W.P.MilnerRob’s list is long, but each one of these daffodils would make a fine addition to the spring garden.  Forgive me all of these pictures, but once you take the time to study the available narcissus, it is easy to be taken by a plant that is so carefree and persistent in the landscape is so beautiful. W. P. Milner, here.

DA971 glory of lissedaffodil Glory of Lisse

narc_cycl_toto_main_2narcissus Toto

bacec9d68af99a7ee04ad4a4191b985f narcissus British Gamblenarcissus British Gamble

daffodil Fidelitydaffodil Fidelity

DA985 horn of plentydaffodil Horn of Plenty

DA944 daffodil romancedaffodil Romance

angel_daffsx1200 thaliadaffodil Thalia


narcissus Bath’s Flame

narc_large_stainless_mainnarcissus Stainless

1008398 miniature nbarcissus Elkaminiature narcissus Elkanarc_small_dreamlight_mainnarcissus Dreamlight

1280px-Narcissus_Xit miniatureminiature narcissus xit

215 narcissus Firebirdnarcissus Firebird

PL2000008432_card2_lg Nivethdaffodil Niveth

narc_triandrus_katie_heath_extranarcissus Katie Heath

narc_triandrus_katie_heath_extra_1_This closeup of narcissus Katie Heath-breathtaking. Surely there is a daffodil here that would enchant you.

Picture Taking, Garden Making

Sept 14, 2015 003I have been tinkering some with taking pictures with my new iphone 6. I am not very technically inclined, meaning I have always used a cell phone as a phone, and not much else. But this phone is capable of facilitating communications of all sorts, and in very sophisticated visual ways. The photo feature produces images that are amazingly sharp and detailed. Even at close range, in the hands of an older person.The fact that it is light, and fits in my pocket, means that there is no need to plan ahead. I am almost always ready, for anything that strikes my fancy.  Or that unexpected, interesting, or enchanting moment.

image6 (9)I just learned that I can edit my pictures.  I can change or rearrange the composition.  This means I can set the four edges of the photograph wherever I want. I can crop-as in blow up the image to the edges I have set, to eliminate all of those unnecessary visual details.  This is the heart and soul of editing. Keep what matters the most, feature what brings an idea to life visually in its simplest and most dramatic form, and discard what distracts. This crop feature makes that easy. Even when it is not so easy, this camera is a great tool by which to learn. A photograph is two-dimensional-flat. How the composition of that two dimensional picture is handled can create the illusion of great depth. Think of it.  This phone has a filter feature.  Any photograph can be overlaid with a number of different transparent color overlays-like acetate gels over a lens. This cropped photograph of succulents got overlaid with a color overlay called chroma. That overlay gives the greens in the picture picture a more intense blue/green cast.

image5 (11)This overlay is called noir. Whatever the color of the overlay, it turns the greens in the original photograph to black. Succulents in black and white-a very different point of view. An interesting point of view.

image7 (11)This overlay is called “instant”.  I have no idea what that means.  I chose it for this picture, as it enhanced the natural pale and muddy blue green of the lavender and the flapjack. The red edges of the flapjack are now a muted, muddy and moody terra cotta color. This overlay does not accurately depict the appearance of the plants the moment that I took the picture, but it accurately depicts how I see these plants.

Sept 14, 2015 039Seeing is not only about the optics of vision. How people see things is overlaid by many layers.  History, experience, memory, desire-these are but 4 of 1004 factors that influence how any given person sees.  No one sees optically.  They see emotionally.  That complex organism we know as a person sees like no other.  For any designer, how they see is their most precious asset. Successfully communicating that seeing can forge an artist from a designer.

Sept 14, 2015 034My IPhone recorded this arrangement of flowers on my sunny daytime deck based on numerous scientific calculations about how to handle the exposure in the best and most pleasing way possible.

flowers 2A chroma overlay, with a bright light overlay makes the saturation of the color more intense. This photograph is edited.  I would guess that the editing would not read as well if the picture were printed.  Computers are glorified light boxes.  The light shines through the image, like those Kodak slides from 50 years ago. The intensity of the light is a pleasure to see.

flowers 3This overlay is even more intense, and dramatic.  The photograph begins to have an aura about it.

image15 (2)This sunny overlay saturates the color of my terra cotta pot. These pots are a pale peach, on a day with no overlays.  Here, the color is on fire.  The shadows on my brown chairs are blue. The pink and yellow flowers are brilliantly pink and blue. This edit is a happy edit.  A high  summer edit.

Sept 14, 2015 037This picture is as the camera read it.

Sept 14, 2015 036The same picture, edited, is an expression of how I felt, and what I truly saw, when I took this picture. How do I explain this in words?  Nature is a vast and ultimately a most important stage.  Everything of any consequence goes on there.  I have great respect for the story that is to come when the lights dim. The light is drama in and of itself.  The light and dark in a landscape-that relationship can be very dramatic.

image1 (16)If you are a garden maker, all of the above is of critical importance.  The composition. The editing. The plants arranged in a fresh or unexpected way.  The design that is is subject to a series of overlays that describe the maker. I feel quite sure that if 100 landscape designers were asked to create a design for the same space, every design would be different. Distinctively different. A designer and client that share certain overlays are bound to produce a project of note. A great landscape rings true, and is emotionally sound.

image15As for me, I like landscape designs that are simple, and saturated. Saturated with thoughtful composition.Saturated with shapes, color, textures, memories, events, and moments. I have not explained this very well, but that process by which gardeners create is loaded with mono, tonal, noir, chroma, fade, process, transfer and instant overlays.  A life applied to a landscape design-would that every project I do would have this overlay. Adding some light, dark, and color to this mix we call design- it could be brilliant.