Homespun Hybridizing
By Melanie Mason, Buskirk, NY

[Condensed from AHS Region 4 Fall 95/Winter 96 Newsletter.]

What do you do with those daylily seeds come February? A few years ago I tried something new, and got lucky. I went to B.J.'s and picked up a couple dozen clear plastic shoe boxes with colored lids. [Wal-Mart has them also. -Ed.] Then I stopped by Agway and got a large bale of Pro-Mix as a seed-starting medium. Also at Agway I picked up the smallest plastic tags they had. Then came the hard part. I type into my computer all the crosses. To save space, I abbreviate each cultivar to just the first three letters of the first two words of the name. For example, HEAVENLY HARMONY crossed with CHERRY CHAPEAU becomes HeaHar X CheCha.

The computer remembers the full cross, but I only print up the abbreviations. I cut out the tiny names (printed in the smallest type) and fix them onto the plastic stake with Scotch Magic Tape. (If you're clever, you can probably print them on Avery labels and save some work. I can vouch that the scotch tape will protect the label the first summer, but can't say how the Avery labels would fare.)

I measure four coffee cans of Pro-mix per shoe box, add one coffee can of hot water, stir the soil, put the lid on and set the box aside for about 15 minutes while I fill more boxes. This allows the dried Pro-mix to rehydrate before the seeds are planted. When the first box is ready, stir the medium until it is evenly moistened. Then make four to six grooves across the short direction of the box; each "row" should be about 2" apart. The number of seeds I have of each cross determines how many crosses go into a box. Usually I get about 50 seeds per box.

Plant the seeds in the furrow, and pull the soil over them. Lightly tamp the soil down over the row so that the seeds are in good contact with the soil. Put the proper tag in at the end of each row, pushing it deep enough that the lid will go on, or if your tags won't fit with the lid, lay them along the rows. Put the lid on tightly, and place the box where it will get bottom heat. I understand a heating blanket works pretty well. [Bottom heat desirable but not necessary. - Ed.] Sunlight and bottom heat! Under these circumstances last year, I got germination in about 7-10 days.

Leave the lids on the boxes until most of the seeds have germinated, and the tallest seedling is touching the top. Once they touch the top, the lid has to come off. I want to keep the "greenhouse" effect going a bit longer though, so I saved my clear plastic grocery bags and bought some wooden shishkabob sticks from the grocery store. A stick in each corner, topped with an upside down plastic grocery bag (handle end tucked under the box) makes a pretty fair mini-greenhouse.

The seedlings will need a lot of light at this time, since the days still are pretty short. Grow lights would be optimal, but I rely on natural light, moving the boxes so the seedlings don't lean too much, and rotating them so that the shadier ones get their turn in the sun.

Once the babies are up 4-5", it's time to introduce them to the real world. Loosen the plastic bags and roll the bottoms up slightly for a day or two before removing them altogether. You haven't needed to add any water or fertilizer at all yet, but once the protection of the bag is gone, you'll have to be responsible for replacing the water that evaporates from the soil surface and is used in growing. Try to keep the boxes evenly moist without getting them soaking wet. Remember there are no drainage holes, so be judicious in your watering. I use a weak Miracle-Gro solution, and water whenever the soil begins to feel crumbly. Sometimes the top will dry out, but the soil will be quite moist underneath. It's always good to check with your finger first.

You'll notice quite a difference in the seedlings. Some crosses will hit the ground running, while others will sulk and mope before settling in. Some germinate in 7 days. Some take two weeks or more. At this stage, it doesn't seem to me to have much to do with vigor, just a genetic time clock. You may notice a few albino seedlings mixed in. These will die because they have no chlorophyll, hence no way of manufacturing food from the sunlight. Other seedlings may appear weak and spindly, and never produce true leaves. These can also be removed from the rows. The big vigorous ones are the ones we all like to see, and fortunately there seem to be a lot of them. Rarely, one cross will all be duds. None will germinate. C'est la vie. Cheer on the strong ones.

So why use shoe boxes instead of flats? The depth of the shoe boxes allows quite a root development. You can pick up a box and see the roots on the bottom after about 6 weeks. Don't worry about them growing together down there. Unlike a little girl's hair, they all untangle pretty easily. Another advantage is that due to the sizable soil mass, the root zone seldom dries out completely. It's relatively simple to keep a constant moisture in the boxes, and the seedlings don't alternate between too wet and too dry. [Don't be in a rush to plant them outside until danger of killing frost is past. -Ed.]