A Teacher and His 'Teacher's Pet'
The author's hybridizing goals have evolved to a degree, but his original interest in variegation has remained.
by Stuart Asch, Clawson, Michigan
First published in The Hosta Journal volume 39, number 3
My becoming a hostaholic began with a Saturday morning visit to the local farmers' market, where I met the pioneering hybridizer Pauline Banyai. She was selling hostas and I remember being fascinated with these beautiful plants. At the same time, I was astounded by the price tag on a particularly beautiful one called Hosta 'Gold Standard'. Several weeks, many conversations and $15 later, I was hooked.
Having a mentor, although not necessary, can be a welcome help. For me, that mentor was Pauline Banyai. "Pinky" was always willing to give advice and suggestions, with a bright smile on her face, and she never minded my naive and silly questions. I hope that anyone interested in starting to hybridize will be as fortunate as I was in having such a wonderful and knowledgeable mentor.
My understanding from the beginning was that my hybridizing priorities would evolve over time. That turned out to be true, to some extent, but my original fascination with variegated plants remains. I like all forms of hostas, but my main hybridizing goal always has been to develop the perfect—to my eye—variegated hosta.
To that end, after thousands of seedlings, I managed to come up with my first keeper, 'Teacher's Pet', registered in 2000, a cross of 'Dorothy Benedict' x H. montana. This, to me, is a wonderful combination of texture, substance and color (blue-green and creamy white). Finally coming up with a gardenworthy hosta only served to intensify my desire for more worthy varieties. My second introduction, 'Made You Look', an open-pollinated 'Dorothy Benedict' seedling registered in 2000, followed soon after. This beautiful hosta has an outstanding combination of pale and golden yellow and the ability to handle sun.
One important component to my breeding program was to come up with my own plants to hybridize with. This took years to accomplish (and the quest continues), but it has been rewarding to be able to use plants that no one else does. Two plants in particular have served me well as variegated pod parents. They are 'Justa Gigolo' and 'Sweet William', both open-pollinated 'Dorothy Benedict' seedlings registered in 2004. Both are outstanding garden specimens and give more than their fair share of variegated offspring, although 'Justa Gigolo' seems to work on an every-other-year cycle.
I use two basic techniques when hybridizing. The first is to do my own pollinating in my double city-lot yard. I get up early and remove the stamens and petals from any potential pod plant before the bees come out. I sometimes start to collect pollen at the same time, although I am more likely to do this later in the day. (I may even "borrow" some pollen from my friend, Ron Livingston, a hybridizer and fellow member of the Fraternal Order of Seedy Fellows [FOoSF]). I collect the stamens from each pollen plant I want to use that day and keep them in small strips of tin foil on a tray. As the pollen ripens and the stigmas become receptive, I start to hand pollinate, using the stamen as if it were a paint brush.
Labeling each cross is cumbersome and I use a technique I learned from Charlie Seaver, a hybridizer and proprietor of Sea Made Hostas. Using a small paper punch and a small jewelry tag, I punch a code in the tag that corresponds to a coded worksheet I carry with me. I then record the cross and date on the worksheet. I tie the tag around the pedical, taking the bract off because it usually gets in my way. When it comes time to collect the seed in the fall, I place the tag and seed pod in a small envelope for later identification. This process is time-consuming without a doubt, but it is the method that works best for me.
My second hybridizing technique is to let the bees do the pollinating, in a somewhat controlled environment. I make up specific beds with plants I would like to see crossed, and I change some of the plants in these beds from season to season. This method obviously is hit and miss at best, but it still gives me the potential to come up with some unique crosses I would never have the time or patience to try with my first method.
Either way, there are no certainties when hybridizing. And isn't that part of the fun? One never knows what the mix of genes will produce. I've even gotten a very nice yellow hosta ('Za Za Zoom') from a sterile 'Gold Standard'. I think Pinky may have had something to do with this.
Once I harvest the ripened seeds, I aggressively rub them in a strainer to remove all the chaff, a technique I saw used by Ken Marek, a hostaphile here in Michigan. This helps with storage and planting, since there are fewer mold problems. I always use a good-quality soilless potting mix to grow the seedlings. First I moisten the mix, then place the seed on top, covering with a plastic dome. I grow my fresh seeds in my classroom or greenhouse, not in my garden, and keep the trays in a warm, dark spot until the seeds have germinated. Immediately after germination, all seedlings get 24-hour light that is gradually reduced until, by the time the seedlings are ready to be put in the garden, the amount of controlled lighting closely resembles the amount of sunlight outside.
Moving the seedlings under lights starts a rather fast and enjoyable transformation that makes me dream of possibilities to come. The seedlings grow quickly and the "bumping up" process begins. After three leaves have formed, I start the dreaded culling process and place the remaining seedlings in individual 72-cell plug flats. When individual plugs become filled with roots, it is time to bump them up to 48-cell plugs. Once this process starts, it doesn't end. Since individual plants have different growth rates, repotting becomes a constant task.
I have always placed the plugs or pots in a sealed tray, bottom-watering to encourage root development. I don't use any fertilizer until spring, and then it is greatly diluted. The culling process continues, since space becomes an issue. At first, I had a hard time culling my new seedlings. Of the thousands of seedlings I start each year, I end up with 25 to 50 making it to my beds in the spring. What happens to the rest? Most are culled along the way, although hundreds survive and are given to family, friends and students. I might add that each year I have to remove some mature plants, just to make room for new seedlings. This can even be harder than culling, as I've grown some nice plants for years, watching them mature, and then had to let them go.
The seedlings in my classroom were grown while incorporating science, math and writing exercises for my students. The applications are endless. Recording germination and growth rates, and graphing these results, were daily activities. We also grew several varieties of tomato plants and, needless to say, students and teachers had plenty of hostas and tomatoes to take home each spring.
My goal of developing the perfect variegated hosta has not yet been accomplished, and may never be, but I am very satisfied with several of my introductions in addition to 'Made You Look' and 'Teacher's Pet'. Standouts in my garden, at least in my opinion, include 'Spring Break', a 2000 cross of 'Dorothy Benedict' and a 'Dorothy Benedict' seedling. It still puts a big smile on my face as it emerges in the spring with a rare kind of fluorescent chartreuse that remains for quite some time. My current favorite is 'Seducer', a 'Dorothy Benedict' x 'Dorothy Benedict' cross registered in 2004. It has outstanding color, a wide wavy edge, great substance and tolerance for sun. This plant has also provided me with a reversed sport, so far unregistered, called 'Seduced', and a delightful streaked sport called 'Good Golly Miss Molly', which I registered in 2004.
My love of growing and hybridizing hostas has provided me with new friends, a feeling of serenity while working in the garden, and a sense of wonderment about past accomplishments and those yet to come. I hope the same for you.
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