Thursday, January 15, 2015

Advice For The Beginning Breeder

A Little Advice For The Beginning Breeder

**I want to start this post with a disclaimer. What I have to say in this post are my opinions based upon my own experiences. If these thoughts don't apply to you or you have other opinions then please ignore what I have to say. However, if you feel there is something in what I have to say that you can apply, please feel free to do so.**

In my many years of breeding plants and animals, I have gained some insight into the process of beginning a breeding program. I want to share some of these observations with you, the reader, so that you may avoid some of the pitfalls and old-wives-tales that are so common in many hobby realms.

One of the first observations I would like to make is about obtaining breeding stock. The standard story is invariably that you must buy the most expensive and advanced cultivars (plants)/strains/lines (animals) you can afford. In plants the implication is that you must get the latest and greatest introductions and in animals you should buy individuals of the highest placing show lines, if you even want to bother with breeding. However, I have two objections with this. The first is that many beginners may not have the experience to sink a large amount of money into the 'finest' stock and may not really be capable of giving these (often touchy or delicate) examples the care they may need. Conversely, the second point is that beginners may gain much more valuable experience by not working with "the best" (as if the best show lines or the 'latest and greatest' introductions actually even are "the best" either in terms of hardiness and survivability or genetic potential). I think the whole notion of 'buying the best' is sometimes more about the sellers purse than the buyers needs, in some instances.

A beginner to breeding any plant or animal is in need of experience. Once some experience is gained, then he or she will have a much better idea about what they want to do and actually can do. So my advice to the beginner is to buy older and affordable cultivars and gain some experience, or in animals buy the second tier stock usually called "breeding quality" and gain some experience. In poultry, an excellent source of stock to gain experience with are those obtained from the commercial hatcheries. Unfortunately, breeders of other animals don't really have this luxury. Plant breeders, though, are in the absolute best situation when it comes to purchasing stock. Any older cultivar that is still in commerce can generally be obtained fairly easily and often fairly inexpensively, and there are thousands to choose from in all forms, styles and both ploidy levels.

Don't let anyone fool you into thinking that an older cultivar is useless. No matter how many offspring were or were not produced from a given cultivar in the past, those breeders didn't have the same gene pool to choose from to combine with those cultivars that we have today. Gain some experience with older, less expensive cultivars that have traits you like and then in time you can bring in more expensive, newer cultivars as you gain experience and combine over the best of those older cultivars to learn about breeding, the making of bridge plants and the retrieving of desired traits in later generations.

Don't assume that because a cultivar is new or expensive that it is superior. Some may truly be superior plants, but others are merely fancier flowers. Like everyone else, I use the occasional fancy flower on a lesser plant in a breeding project, but I only combine them onto the hardiest and most vigorous plants, generally older things that I have a lot of experience with and can trust to reproduce those characteristics, even when crossed to weaker cultivars or seedlings. However, when you are new to breeding any type of plant or animal, you might not be able to recognize the truly hardy and vigorous nor the weak but fancy. The inexperienced eye can be deceived by flashy and extreme phenotype traits. So can more experienced breeders, sometimes, as well.

It is important to remember that delicate and hard to maintain does not equal quality. This is an old-wives-tale that seems to be far too common in all breeding groups. Quality starts with performance and may be compounded by phenotype extremes. However, an extreme or beautiful phenotype in and of itself does not imply quality. These things simply imply an accumulation of genes, usually major and minor, for the trait in question. That is nice, but does not imply a well rounded cultivar or strain. When you are starting out, it can be hard to recognize the more subtle performance traits through the glitz of the accumulated phenotype extremes.

In daylilies, it is important to remember that not all cultivars flourish in all environments. Some southern cultivars do not do well in cold climates. Some hard dormants don't survive in the south. This is just reality. However, most daylilies will do fairly well in most conditions. We haven't managed to turn them all into hothouse delicacies just yet. With that said, the beginner is best advised to buy from a climate similar to their own and even then, buy those that are flourishing in a similar climate. Just because something can survive in a given climate does not mean that it will also thrive. What you want to gain experience with at first are plants that thrive, because you want to reproduce plants that also thrive. 

There will be plenty of time to add "breeder plants" that may not thrive but are still useful in crossing over plants more suited to your environment in order to bring in advanced genes of one kind or another. Once you have some experience, you will also have a better chance of using such plants well. Starting with such plants can be discouraging, but even worse, you might think that such plants are the 'norm' and never gain discernment of what a great plant really is.

Beginners with any type of breeding project are rarely going to jump in and produce an enduring classic in their first batch of seeds, so don't feel pressured to buy very expensive or delicate stock from the get-go. Beginners are often poorly equipped to care for such stock and don't have a point of reference so may not recognize the problem traits in such lines and may actually compound those problems without realizing it. With experience you can learn to recognize the problems and work to eliminate them from such lines while working to combine the desired phenotype traits with desirable performance qualities.

It is so important to not get in a rush. There is no finish line in breeding. If you get started breeding anything and stick with it, you will always be breeding, selecting, working to improve both phenotype traits and performance traits. That's what breeding is. It doesn't end. There is no point at which anything is 'perfect'. There will always be room for improvement. Take your time in getting started and learn what good traits, on both phenotype and performance, really are. Don't let people convince you that poor performance traits are ok because a line or cultivar is 'so advanced' or 'so whatever'. You might use a weak individual, seedling or cultivar at times, but you should be working toward improving the line by eliminating the bad traits while retaining the desirable traits. The bad traits are not ok and should not be overlooked just because of x,y or z phenotype traits. Don't ever believe they are acceptable, even when you are using such an individual or paid a lot of money for it.

By starting with tried and true stock, stock that has proven to have many good traits over many years and in many locations over the country, you will learn what good traits are and then can recognize them. Once you know what real performance traits look like in your garden, it will be very hard for someone else to pull the wool over your eyes and convince you that something pretty but weak is 'superior'. The point of gaining experience is to have a point of reference for future endeavors. 

Remember that everyone will have opinions. Almost any system can bring success if the breeder follows through in what they are doing, but 'success' can mean different things. For some success means they made a lot of money. For others, success means that they have taken a phenotype and made it more extreme, more concentrated. For some success is the production of well-rounded strains or cultivars that are consistent in good traits and have both performance and phenotype extremes combined into one package.

Beware of the notion of not 'reinventing the wheel'. This is something I have heard a lot in the poultry world for many years. The animal world is somewhat different from the plant world in that the animals tend to come in set 'breeds', so the admonition to not reinvent the wheel for animal breeds usually has to do with not trying to make new breeds or new varieties of existing breeds, but in plant breeding, homozygous strains that reproduce themselves in clone-like fashion are the exception, not the rule. So I was a bit surprised to occasionally find this same admonition in the plant world. Doesn't every breeder reinvent the wheel in some way or another? Isn't that the whole point? If we aren't reinventing the wheel, what on earth are we doing? Just churning out more of the same, maybe with a little bit more of this or that trait? There does seem to be a lot of that in almost all breeding circles. 

Sometimes, though, the wheel needs to be reinvented. When there are problems in a line, sometimes it has to be outcrossed and remade from the ground up. So many people seem to fear doing this and so in too many domesticated organisms, we see a steady decline over generations through inbreeding and narrowing of the gene pool. In many animals lines, the fear of outcrossing produces inbreeding problems and creates lines that are not viable, often with disease susceptibility problems set in the line, as well as infertility. This is less of a problem in plants, but we do see some of it. One area where the wheel might desperately need to be reinvented in the daylily world is in regards to the many types that show high rust susceptibility.

Another worrisome trend I have noticed in the daylily world is the tendency to blame failure with a given cultivar on the person growing the plant. This is especially prevalent when dealing with evergreen and semi-evergreen cultivars that fail in the north. Instead of just saying that maybe that cultivar is not a good choice for all cold climate areas, some will blame the failure on 'cultural conditions'. We accept that many hard dormant cultivars won't survive in the south, so why then is it sometimes not also accepted that some evergreen cultivars won't survive in the north?

In regards to the notion that certain cultivars won't survive without specific cultural practices, my question is, why then would I want that cultivar when the six hundred cultivars I have that surrounded it in the garden all survived without those 'cultural practices'? A beginner may not think to ask that question, but having had many years of experience with growing and raising plants and animals, I have learned that delicacy doesn't equate rarity, value or specialness. 

Now, I might use a delicate or demanding specimen (for as long as it survives or for one or two seasons) in a breeding program, but I am not going to think that delicacy is ok. I recognize that such delicacy is a serious flaw and I will work to eliminate that problem in future generations while seeking to keep the desirable trait(s) from such a cultivar within the line. However, you have to be able to recognize the flaws in order to not perpetuate them. To do that, you have to be able to see those flaws and even understand that they are flaws to begin with. Only by gaining experience with excellent performing individuals or strains will you have that point of reference to recognize the flaws when you see them.

While it may not be a popular thing to say, there are plenty of five and ten dollar daylilies that are wonderful, beautiful garden plants and are also excellent breeders, especially when crossed to excellent modern cultivars. Age is not a determiner of breeding value. If you need any further evidence, just look at some of the work of Brian Mahieu or Gil Stelter, both of who have gone back to the species in their programs with wonderful results. Talk about reinventing the wheel. Can you reinvent it any more thoroughly than going back to the beginning?

Another fine example of someone who 'reinvented the wheel' is Richard Norris, who created his line of flat flowered cultivars by using the old, flat flowered cultivar Lights of Detroit. Lights of Detroit had been around for years when Richard started working with it to produce a flat flowered line, yet almost nothing of any interest had been done with it. Richard had both the vision and the persistence to just do it. He had an idea and a vision and raised large numbers over several generations to produce what he was looking for. There must be so many currently obscure traits in the daylily gene pool that could be, but currently aren't being, exploited to produce amazing and breathtaking new phenotypes. We will never know if someone doesn't try.

It is important for beginners to study what has gone before them. Look at what other did. Don't just play follow the leader or jump on every latest trend. Try new things, but also, don't be distressed if your ideas fail. Sometimes our failures are our greatest teachers. I am deeply grateful for my failures, sometimes more grateful for the failures than the successes. Learn to value your failures and your successes, as both are your teachers. Listen to the experiences of others, but follow your own ideas, dreams, intuitions and learn what is possible and what is not possible while mapping your own path. If you do, you might just give the world something extraordinary. Above all, be patient, take your time to learn and don't spend more than you can afford. There is always time for that when you know what you are doing and are sure of what you want to do.