There is a very good chance that
there is going to be at least one or more "Lakeside" hostas in any
serious hosta garden In America . The Lakeside name has made inroads in Europe
as well. Mary and Roy Chastain are the reason for this. They live near the shore
of Lake Chickamauga in the town of Ooltewah in eastern Tennessee.
Their home is a gracious ranch style house which fits its site like comfortable and well-loved gardening clothes. You would expect the southern hospitality and the soft Tennessee cadences.
You would certainly expect the gardens and the growing houses filled with picture perfect hostas. What you might not have expected is that Mary designed their ranch-style home, helped dig the foundation, and helped to lay the cement blocks. She is also a fair electrician, a passable plumber, and she and Roy know their way around woodworking too. There is little in their home that is not a reflection of their talents and work ethic.
Mary and Roy Chastain are exceptional people. They have lived in their home in Ooltewah since 1954 and have been married 54 years. The land was once a dairy farm and was in Mary's family for a number of years before she and Roy made it their home. They have one son, Roy Jeffrey. You will find his wife Cindy's name on a hosta and the names of the grandchildren too. Instead of the hosta gene , their son has the computer gene, just as consuming as its counterpart in the world of hostas.
In their life before hostas, Roy was an agriculture major and taught math, chemistry, and biology for 30 years. Mary taught home economics and the 4th grade. Then in the 1980's Mary and Roy became involved in the world of hostas. The following interview, conducted over a few weeks in November of 2004, is a small part of that ongoing story.
GW: Did your early life give you an introduction to the world of plants and flowers?
MC: I grew up on a dairy farm. I guess one would say that I was and still am a country hick. I remember walking 3/4 of a mile to and from the school bus stop. Many days I came home with wild flowers. Fall was the best time of the year as there was not only a large variety of flowers but I also had a special wild muscadine vine that supplied me with fruit for preserves. In the evenings when I went to drive the dairy cows in, I always found time to search for wild flowers. Even as a young child I learned where certain plants lived and the time of year that they were apt to flower. During summer while chopping the cotton and corn, I would try to take the morning glories in to transplant in the yard. I also had special places in the woods where I found wild orchids. It didn't take me long to learn that the plants from the woods were not happy when moved to our yard.
GW: What finally led you to hybridizing hostas?
MC: Desperation! When I first attempted to make a hosta garden, I had no experience or knowledge to draw from. No one in this area grew hostas. In fact hostas could not even be bought here. It took me two years to find enough information to join the hosta society and locate people that sold plants. I had always grown anything that I liked so I bought what looked pretty. I soon learned that a $50 or $100.00 hosta was apt to die much faster than a $15.00 one. Those really fancy ones sometime would not last the summer. By the time I had exhausted my budget, I discovered that certain hostas were not compatible with the environment that I could offer them. Not to be outdone, I decided to develop my own. My goal was to develop plants that would grow in spite of adverse conditions.
GW: Bill and Eleanor Lachman did a lot of hybridizing with daylilies as well as hostas. Have you ever worked with any other plants?
MC: My first experience in hybridizing was done with tall bearded iris. If you want to work with something that will give you variety, then everyone should give them a chance. Roy loved the iris and between us we developed several that were very nice and worthy of introduction but we never bothered to register them. Our next venture was with daylilies. In fact I discovered my first hosta garden on a regional daylily tour. It was in a pine grove and was an inspiration that still lives in my mind. I did develop and register a few daylilies. I was thrilled to meet someone in Chicago this year that told me Lakeside Meringue was still one of her favorite ruffled white variety of daylilies.
GW: What part has Roy played in your career ?
MC: I guess this answer could fill a book. Roy is an agricultural major. He knows a lot about genes and their interactions. When I ask questions, he gives me all kinds of statistics. Finally I bought a book so I could give him some back talk. He is happy to experiment just to see what a cross will produce or to collect unusual things from nature. He loves record keeping which I hate. He does a lot of the heavy work for me. When I was moving rocks with my trusty wheelbarrow, he got the tractor and trailer to make my work easier and faster. From the very beginning Roy has encouraged me to continue working toward my goals. He took the training courses to secure a private applicator certificate so we could use chemicals that were needed in our work. If I ever say I would like to have something to work with he is always there to tell me to buy it. Roy spells better than I so he is a great help with proof reading, or he acts as a sounding board for my ideas for talks. We together are the ONE Lakeside Acres.
GW: Are you self-trained in botany and hybridizing, or had you taken classes or read books in these subjects before you started?
MC: I have no training. All of my work is done from observation of the plants that I work with. If I want to introduce a trait into a line that I am breeding into I just run my plant material through my mind and select the best example of that trait. From experience I know that some pollens produce off spring that have early dormancy, which I avoid, or some pod parents transfer rapid growth genes to their offspring, some produce a sheen or heavy substance to the foliage and so on. With information gathered from observation, I go to the garden to select my materials.
GW: How would you characterize your own breeding program?
MC: My breeding program is an expression of my creativity. I have a built in urge to create. It may be that I am painting china, designing a house, doing an oil painting, creating a flower arrangement, a piece of jewelry or developing a new recipe. It doesn't matter as long as I am creating. For me, hybridizing is a process of creating something new, something exciting.
GW: How has your "eye" for evaluating hostas changed over the years?
MC: I don't believe that there has been a change. Since my senior year in college, I have been able to evaluate what I like and why I like it. God gave me a gift for discernment and I have used it. Over a period of years I have become more demanding in respect to quality. I have always been able to find the beauty and the quality in a leaf or a plant.
GW: When you look at a plant as an experienced hybridizer, what do you see?
MC: I look at plants in general, it is what I don't see that bothers me. It is the traits that are missing that call to me. The same is true when I read about plants in a catalog. I am very interested in what has been left out. I make a checklist of everything that I should be told about the plant. Often about half of what I want to know is missing.
GW: You clearly like to apply your own imagination to any project you tackle. How have you applied it to the increasingly look-alike world of hostas?
GW: When you are evaluating your seedlings, what are your major criteria?
MC: This can easily be answered in a "1 2 3 4" fashion. I would say that the trial period provides an opportunity to check the plant's health, vigor and personality.
1. The plant must thrive well in most conditions. It should not need special pampering.
2. The seedling needs display its ability for natural increase at rates of average or above.
3. To me good substance is vital. Thin leaves will not last throughout our long growing season. I feel cheated when plants begin to disintegrate in July. Today is November 16. I still have hostas in the garden that are looking pretty good. I also have some that have been showing only a flower scape since mid season.
4. To my eyes all hostas have a personality. Just as in the comparison I made about the crowd at the baseball game, the plants that I select must have that something special that sets them apart from others in their class. This "special factor" may result from a combination of things such as color, surface texture, ruffling or sculptural qualities.
GW: In respect to hybridizing, what are your "old faithfuls"?
GW: The hosta world has been flooded with sports the past few years; you have registered few if any . Is there a reason for this?
GW: What is the average length of time that you take to evaluate a hosta before you put it on the market?
MC: By the time the plants are four years old, I can usually tell enough about the quality of the seedling that I will divide the clump. After this is done, I wait to see if the divided variegated crowns remain stable. Three years will usually tell me if it is safe to continue propagation. Sometimes when a variegated crown is removed from the mother clump, it does not perform well. Once removed from the clump those plants, showing large areas of white or yellow color will often be smaller in size or even develop melt-out. The name of this part of the process should be patience. The average time for the complete process of growing, selection, and propagation is between ten and fifteen years. The more vigorous small varieties can usually be done in ten.
GW: You have a long growing season in Tennessee. Do you feel that this is in any way is reflected in how your plants behave in areas of the country with much shorter seasons or different climates?
MC: The one factor that I have observed is that my plants grow much larger in cooler climates where there is a longer period of dormancy. When looking at my garden after returning from conventions and I recall the size and color of Lakeside varieties I saw in northern gardens, I become very discouraged. I have had several northern gardeners tell me that my plants always grow larger for them. Some have even suggested that my registration facts were wrong. That may be true but I can only record what they do in my garden. I am happy in the fact that Lakeside hostas do well in other places but to be honest it hurts that they can't show their full size potential for me.
GW: Could you tell the story of one of your crosses from start to finish?
MC: I don't really have any one story. I have never decided to develop a line of blue plants or a line of small plants etc. I just want quality. I love variety and receive the same thrill from the development of the heavy substance in the miniature 'Lakeside Cricket' as from the first very dark 'Lakeside Black Satin' or any other step on the ladder. I expect every generation to be better than its parents. My objective is to move forward.
GW: What is the story behind the first hosta that you ever registered?
GW: You have now registered over a hundred different hostas, and naming them might now be seen as a challenge. In using "Lakeside" as your initial appellation, you have clearly put your stamp as the breeder on your plants. Can you share any of the stories that have come from deciding on the individual names for your hostas?
GW: Do you have any hostas that you think have "perfect" names: those hostas where name and plant are one and the same?
GW: Which of your hostas have proved to be the most popular with the public? Were any of these a surprise?
MC: I don't have a way of knowing this. Too many other people are selling Lakeside plants. I have watched my sales over a period of years and been surprised to find that in each week we ship a large variety of plants. Some of the plants that are among my earlier things continue to sell at the rate of the newer ones. For example each week we will find the number of requests for 'Lakeside Black Satin', 'Lakeside Neat Petite', 'Lakeside San Kao', 'Lakeside Lollipop', 'Lakeside April Snow' and 'Lakeside Ninita' are equal to the number of newer things such as 'Lakeside Shore Master', 'Lakeside Main Man' and 'Lakeside Foaming Sea'. Of course over a period of time we have sold more of the older varieties. It is amazing how many hundred 'Lakeside Neat Petite' have gone from here and they have all been from clump divisions.
GW: Over the years, have you seen any change in the garden aesthetic that you bring to your hostas?
GW: Has the pleasure you have taken from the world of hostas changed and evolved over the years?
GW: What would you like to say to those newbies just getting into the world of hybridizing hostas?
MC: There are 6 things which I would like to share with anyone just starting out to hybridize hostas. These have grown out of my life in Tennessee, but most can be applied to hosta hybridizing elsewhere.
1. The most important thing is that one must enjoy the process from the first step to the end, which in time may be twelve or more years for each plant.
2. Make a realistic evaluation of the time that you have to give and whether or not the project is high on your priority list. Once the seeds have been planted don't plan on a winter vacation. In fact leaving the seedlings for more than two days can be a real problem. If one doesn't want to miss the cross of the season then be at home during the several months of flowering. The third important step is harvesting seed at just the right time. That means it is done almost daily over a period of six weeks or more. From reviewing this, you will see that we have covered the calendar year. This supports my belief that hybridizing has to be high on the priority list and it is best done for pleasure.
3. Don't expect great wonders in a hurry. Plan on at least five years to develop a breeding line. To produce a wide variety of cultivars, I would suggest that one needs to work with several lines providing different growth characteristics.
4. I have often told beginners to set goals to be used as working guidelines. I believe this is essential but I want to point out that all other goals need to be governed by just one goal: QUALITY. The word quality clearly needs a working definition. Whether the plant is large or small, quality means a healthy variety that grows well in most areas and offers at least average increase. For goodness sakes lets rid ourselves of the tissue paper leaves that can't make it through the season. Some of us have long growing seasons. This is November 24th. Here we have not had a killing frost. Many hostas in my garden are still holding on. I also have hostas in my garden that I have not seen since July. Those that require such a long resting period need to be put to rest permanently before public exposure. A part of quality is individuality. The plant should be distinct or as I like to say have its own personality. One should not have to read the label to know it from twenty-five others in the garden. If a seedling only has two to three crowns at the end of five years and satisfies your senses then grow it in your garden but don't inflict the hosta world with something that one needs to zap.
5. Don't expect to make money. In fact the better varieties are quickly grabbed by the TC labs which means the developer may not reap the cost of production. The cost is much more than might be expected. Growing racks, trays, containers, heat, electricity, soil, water and fertilizer PLUS LABOR over a period of years may not be a lot for one plant but there is the cost of the thousands that were culled along the way. The one selected has to pay for the herd.
6. Somewhere along the hybridizing road I can only hope you will learn that the people that share your joys and sorrows of success or failure are your real reward.
GW: Thank you Mary. Thank you for all the hostas you and Roy have given us, as well as the words you have shared about the journey. And as you said, there are still more Lakeside hostas waiting in the wings.......
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