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.



  1. Cara Kazanowski says

    Wow! Everything about these cucurbits & their grower blew me away. And I learned a new word.

  2. What a thought provoking post! I love pumpkins…and plants put i have really not been very appreciative of all that goes on to get us the beautiful plethora of plants we have access to. Thank you for this humbling and informative essay! Happy Autumn.

  3. Deborah, I’ve been gardening a long time and have worked, in the past, for a well-known plantsman and plant explorer. You, like he did years ago, add so much to the conversation of gardening and open a realm that I feel most-fortunate to experience. I can’t tell you how happy I am to have found your blog, it’s topics and content. From your images to your eye-opening and thought-provoking narratives, you have added to and reawakened my love of gardening and design. Thank you so much!

  4. cynthia woodyard says

    Very interesting and well written info on that old pumpkin! Thanks

  5. Super interesting Deborah! I don’t know if we have some keen hybridizers in our area, but I am going to investigate!

  6. Shelley T. says

    Absolutely beautiful! Rob has done a fantastic job in his selecting and you have made me think twice about pumpkins and gourds. I’ve never really looked at there beauty until now. From here on out I won’t look at another one again without thinking of the care and time it took to make it look like it does. Thank you for that.

  7. There aren’t words to describe

  8. mollie duvall says

    They are like works of art. I am lucky enough to live near Detroit Garden Works. I will be visiting next week to pick up a few “masterpieces” of my own 😉

  9. Those black pumpkins with the orange waist bands are fabulous. I can’t wait until I see them in person. The upright pumpkins are nice too. That would make it easier to arrange vignettes as would the stems that you can grasp to shuttle them into place.

  10. Dear Deborah, I never thought about pumpkin stems until I saw your posts over the years. This years selection and offering is phenomenal. They all say, “take me home and put me in your garden or on the front step”. Rob sure has an eye for the real beauties, warts and all. Thanks for getting us going on a wonderful season!

  11. I am a lover of these hybridizers. If I only lived closer to Detroit Gardens…my planters and the contents within would still have my neighbors talking! Deborah, these pics are absolutely beautiful and hats off to Rob for his keen eye and the selection you offer your customers. Thanks for sharing these ideas!

  12. Delightful post! Pumpkin envy here in central VA!

  13. Jody Costello says

    Dear Deborah and Rob,
    Such works of art, chosen carefully by a masterful eye!

  14. That Rob has a pumpkin problem….and we are all the better for it.

  15. Any chance of some of these working their way into the retail trade? Deb, what if you and Rob were to work with the hybridizer on a Detroit Garden Works line of seeds for these fantastic pumpkins? I’d be first in line.

  16. Ruth Wolery says

    I love these pictures and am so impressed. Thanks for sharing.
    Ruth Wolery

    • Deborah Silver says

      thanks, Ruth. I hope my pictures encourage people to get out there and plant some fall pots! best, Deborah

  17. Another swoon for these ideas. The colors have given me the color inspiration for next summer.

  18. Lauren Holt says

    Absolutely beautiful work! When placing gourds and pumpkins in window boxes/containers, how do you get them to stay? Looking forward to seeing more of your work!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Lauren, arranging pumpkins is an art!! You just need enough little ones as wedges. We also take the top 4-6 inches of soil out of the pot. Best, Deborah

  19. i have a small pumpkin stand in amherst ns canada, im always looking for strange pumpkins to sell, did the gentleman in this article ever start selling seeds, his black ones are sensational.
    just wondering

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Tom, he is under contract with a number of seed companies. He does not sell seeds. His pumpkins are amazing-no doubt. best, Deborah

  20. Pat Phillips says

    I thought i was the only one crazy about pumpkins!! I pay attention to the stems, shapes and colors. I love this article. Thank you for writing it.

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