A few years ago, Lynne Rosetto Kasper, the host of the public radio cooking show The Splendid Table, complained on air that the food journalist Michael Pollan had a tomato named after him and she did not. Joseph Tychonievich heard her lament, got in touch, and offered to breed a new tomato for Kasper.
Tychonievich, now 29, cultivates what he calls “new heirlooms.” That may sound funny, but he defines plants by their qualities, not their age. “It isn’t the fact that they are old that makes heirloom tomatoes so delicious and heirloom dianthus so fragrant,” he says. It is that gardeners focused on things they loved, like taste, and selected their own varieties to save and pass along.
Saving seeds of an old variety and sowing them year after year is one way to protect an heirloom, but Tychonievich crosses the plants himself. “Breeding is looking at different plants and combining their best attributes,” he says, “to get the taste of one tomato with the growth habit or color of another, or to pick out the precise flower for your garden out of a seed packet of mixed colors—customizing plants to your tastes and climate.”
Tychonievich studied plant breeding and genetics at Ohio State and Michigan State universities, and he has been breeding varieties of vegetables, roses, and more. “Gardening has historically been isolating; it is something you do by yourself, in your own space,” he says. “Garden clubs and societies have tried to reach across that isolation, but they cannot compare to blogs, Pinterest, or Facebook groups.” He is quick to say, “The internet made my career.”
Tychonievich was offered his job as nursery manager at Arrowhead Alpines in Fowlerville, Michigan, shortly after college. His DIY guide, Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener: How to Create Unique Vegetables and Flowers, will be published this March by Timber Press. “I’d like to encourage more and more people to participate in this ancient art form that is long overdue for revival,” he says. And soon, he’ll be introducing Ms. Kasper’s eponymous tomato.
Photo: Marvin Shaouni
There are gardeners who seem to be able to stick a pencil into the ground and grow an oak tree. Brienne Gluvna Arthur, 33, the propagator and grower for Camellia Forest Nursery in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is one of those horticultural magicians. Each spring to fall, she takes cuttings from shrubs and trees, and within a year she has salable flowering plants in containers.
While studying landscape design at Purdue University, Arthur had an internship working at Montrose, one of America’s greatest private gardens, in Hillsborough, North Carolina. She realized that in addition to designing, she wanted to work with plants. She landed a job as production manager at Plant Delights nursery in Raleigh. “I had no idea so many plants existed,” she says.
Arthur’s other interest is food production. “I have always prioritized health and nutrition,” she says. “My mom was amused that I wouldn’t eat fast food as a child—somehow I knew it wasn’t worth eating.” This awareness of food systems has led her to grow her own organic vegetables since college.
Besides Camellia Forest, Arthur does design work through her business, Designing Solutions. “I wish I could redesign the suburbs with edibles! I would design a neighborhood using plants that have a purpose beyond just covering up house foundations,” she says. “So much can be done to utilize the suburban soil, sun, and irrigation systems.”
Arthur admits that propagating plants is her life’s great passion. “I have found nothing else to be as satisfying as seeing newly formed roots on a cutting. The real key to propagation is learning from your failures. If you don’t succeed in one season, try again,” she says. “Gardening is a hobby that hopefully will last a lifetime, because each season is different, year after year, and ‘hope springs eternal.’”
Photo: DL Anderson
Gardeners in the Seattle area who know Rizaniño “Riz” Reyes, 30, consider him a rising star in the firmament of plant explorers and innovative nurserymen. He has traveled to China to collect plant material to propagate, owned a nursery, and introduced rare and beautiful plants to American horticulture. But he downplays the comparison to his elders.
“There are avid young gardeners in just about every part of the country,” he says. And Reyes knows many of these people through virtual gardens.
“That’s the beauty of social media, meeting gardeners through Facebook. You see a post, a conversation begins, and you ‘friend’ somebody,” he says. “I met someone through Facebook and got a chance to tour nurseries and gardens in England.” Reyes gets some of the remarkable plants and seeds he grows from “China, the U.K., New Zealand, and eBay. But the very best come from generous gardeners who become friends.” Reyes is a well-known presence in social media, appearing in videos on gardening and garden design. He maintains a business website, a personal website, and a blog, The Next Generation Gardener.
Reyes came to the United States from the Philippines when he was 7 years old. His earliest interest was fruit. “I wanted to know about the produce in the supermarket, and then where the flowers came from.” He read Exotica, the tropical-plant bible by Alfred B. Graf, and catalogs from mail-order nurseries like Jackson & Perkins and Spring Hill. “The one that resonated with me was Wayside Gardens. I cut out the photos and dreamed about owning unusual hostas—‘Great Expectations’ or H. tokadama ‘Aurea Nebulosa’. You know how teenage boys have certain magazines under their beds? I had plant catalogs.”
“I started my nursery business, Landwave Gardens, during college,” says Reyes. He graduated with a degree in environmental horticulture and urban forestry from the University of Washington, where he works part time at the botanic garden.
“When I had my nursery, I sold plants that I liked, then focused on plants that my colleagues had a hard time getting.” Among his pursuits are rare lilies; he even hybridizes his own. But if you ask Reyes what interests him, he rattles off a list: “ornamental edibles, evergreen perennials, Chinese woodland plants, summer-flowering bulbs, residential landscape design, container gardening, teaching and lecturing, pruning, propagation—horticulture.”
Photo: Tom Marks
When Kelly Norris was 15, he talked his parents into buying an iris nursery in Texas. That entailed labeling and digging up 40,000 iris rhizomes, bagging and loading them into a tractor-trailer, driving the plants to Iowa, and replanting them on a 7-acre site they called Rainbow Iris Farm. By that time, the young collector already had more than 300 iris varieties.
People tend to say yes to Norris due to his confidence, positive attitude, and infectious enthusiasm. Now age 26, he is a modern-day Andy Hardy, rallying friends and admirers to get excited about his latest enterprise, whether that be giving lectures like “Chic Plants for Modern Gardeners” or having his third book, A Guide to Bearded Irises: Cultivating the Rainbow for Beginners and Enthusiasts (Timber Press), published in 2012.
“I want to do it all, as they say. And what I can’t do, I want others to do—movements have leaders,” he says, “but are rarely led by an army of one.”
“I would love to look back on my career, and the careers of my contemporaries, and know that we changed the way society viewed gardeners,” he says, “that they would be hailed as celebrities much like chefs are today, not because we’re all scraping for attention and glory, but because we would be recognized for stewarding the aesthetics and functionality of our environment in positive ways.”
Norris believes that a revolution led by gardeners beats in the distance. “Gardeners—self-identified, nurturing sorts who like living in the company of plants—will have access to an amazing palette of plants with which to make art,” he says. He sees public gardens as cultural hubs in the future in the way that restaurants and art galleries are today.
His prognostications may turn out to be accurate. Norris has been on track for most of his career. He was the youngest person to receive the Iowa State Horticultural Society’s Presidential Citation, Award of Merit, and Honor Award in the organization’s 150-year history. And in November 2012, he was named horticulture manager of the new Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. “It’s a dream come true, to be part of building a botanical garden from scratch.”
Photo: Kathryn Gamble
Modern gardens should serve more than one purpose—a kind of horticultural multitasking. Dan Jaffe, 28, is the propagator and stock-bed grower at the Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Massachusetts, and he believes that plants selected for landscapes should be multitaskers, too. For instance, he recommends the native spicebush, which is “a shrub with a beautiful form that might be missed at first glance.” Also, he notes, “Lindera benzoin is the host species for the eastern swallowtail, the spicebush swallowtail, and the promethean silk moth.”
This graduate from the University of Maine with a Bachelor of Science in botany favors indigenous plants and likes designs that appear to be part of the surrounding woodland. But he tweaks the scene a bit. Imagine a circular thicket of sumac, but with a bench and patio at its center. As well as being decorative, those shrubs with magnificent autumn color offer fruit for foraging animals.
Jaffe points out that woody plants, trees, shrubs, and even vines present the greatest value to wildlife and have a major effect on any given ecosystem. Examples like bottlebrush buckeye, trumpet honeysuckle, and highbush blueberry offer food and protective cover to many bird and insect species. Some people hear insects and shudder, but without bugs, there wouldn’t be birds. “Educating people on the roles of insects in the natural world is one way to break the practice of spraying first and asking questions later,” Jaffe says.
Jaffe also has plenty of suggestions for outstanding herbaceous perennials, including spring ephemerals. Nearly a dozen Trillium species and other jewels grow in 38 raised stock beds beneath high-limbed trees at the garden. These plants sprout, bloom, and often set seeds before the leaves on the trees have fully unfurled.
Many of these precious plants are not hard to grow. Jaffe recommends easy ephemerals such as Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica), azure bluet (Houstonia caerulea), squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis), Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), or trout lily (Erythronium americanum). He also suggests planting them with other perennials, so that when the ephemerals go dormant in summer, other plants may fill in, and in that way, more native plants will find their way into gardens.
“I think that everyone can play a role in conservation,” he says, explaining how more people could give lawn over to plantings of native species with a goal for promoting local ecosystems. “I believe in the power of many people making small changes. Humans have the potential to do both great and terrible things to the environment, and I’d like to be one of the humans working towards the great things. I’m attempting to save the world one plant at a time.”
Some people in the locavore movement take the idea further—they consider wild and native plants fair game for gourmet dining. Does harvesting plants from the wild represent a threat? What if everyone went out and picked ramps, for instance?
“When I came to the Garden in the Woods,” says Kristin DeSouza, age 31, describing her introduction to the home of the New England Wildflower Society “I proposed expanding the homeowner ‘Idea Garden’ to include a section of edible perennial plants native to North America with an emphasis on New England.”
DeSouza’s edible garden is now 4,000 square feet and includes favorites like elderberries, hazelnuts, mountain cranberries, pawpaws, fiddlehead ferns, and ramps.
Ramps are the first greens of the growing season. Their flavor has been described as a cross between onion and garlic. This has made them a popular subject for wild collection. “Ramping” is an annual rite of spring for foragers, but the plants have been decimated by overharvesting in some areas. DeSouza suggests growing them from seeds or bulbs.
DeSouza earned a Bachelor of Science and a degree in landscape architecture, “but I was too far removed from plants,” she says, and so she went to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston for 2 years. She worked for a landscape architect “to honor my degree,” but then did a stint at Central Park in New York City, sourcing native plants. She received a fellowship to go to England and work at some of Britain’s great institutions, including Kew Gardens, Sheffield University (where she planted green roofs), and the Eden Project, the geodesic-domed “biomes” in Cornwall.
Returning to the United States in 2007, she tried farming in Vermont, but her passion for native plants drew her to Framingham, Massachusetts, and the Garden in the Woods. She works today as the senior horticulturist and plant records coordinator, overseeing a database of the public garden’s collections.
DeSouza’s mission is to help people know more about local plants and use them in their gardens. “Older generations focused on plant aesthetics. My generation looks beyond the ornamental to qualities like whether a plant is edible, medicinal, attractive to native wildlife and pollinators, and good for crafting,” she says. “We talk about cultural identity with native plants—a sense of place. Even a yard that has been flattened by construction, where native plants have been pushed off, can have plants brought back so you know where you are.”
Her goal for the future? “I want to live simply by putting in honest hardworking days where I get my hands dirty, and inspire others to do that, as well.”