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Advice for Beginning Hybridizers
by Clarence Mahan

The most difficult problem facing an iris hybridizer who is not an established name in the field of iris breeding is not one of obtaining a seedling worthy of introduction.  Getting an excellent seedling is, believe it or not, the easy part of an iris breeder’s task. Dr. D.C. Nearpass told me many years ago that if I wanted to get some outstanding seedlings I had two ways to go about it. First, I could choose only outstanding irises as parents and then raise thousands of seedlings. Cross two outstanding pink irises and grow several thousand seedlings from that cross. The odds favor getting at least one distinctive seedling that has many good attributes. Second, I could study iris genetics and pedigrees and make planned crosses toward specific goals. One benefit of the second option is that one does not have to raise so many seedlings.

There are other decisions a beginning hybridizer can make to increase the odds of getting seedlings worthy of registering and introducing. These decisions involve the types of irises one chooses to breed. If one is going to work in the field of once-blooming tall bearded irises, the competition is going to be keen.   There are many people breeding once-blooming tall bearded irises and the established “names” are many. So to increase the odds of getting worthy seedlings that will be competitive; you might want to work with types of irises that not many people are breeding.   Work with rebloomers, space-age irises, spuria iris species that do not go dormant in the summer, setosas, interspecies crosses, regeliabreds, miniature tall bearded irises or some other “target of opportunity” where few or no other iris breeders are working.   

Resisting the temptation to register and introduce a seedling that is not truly worthy is perhaps a little more difficult than obtaining an outstanding seedling. Do not rely on your own judgment in deciding whether to register an iris. Recruit some experienced judges to give you advice on this, and listen to them. If the experts tell you to use the seedling for future breeding but do not introduce it, do what they say. If they tell you to compost the seedling, you can keep it but do not register it. This takes will power, but it is not the most difficult problem that a beginning iris breeder has to confront.   

The most difficult problem a new iris hybridizer has is how to get his or her outstanding new iris distributed, recognized and into the running for awards. This is a subject about which I think I have learned a thing or two, and will presume to offer some advice. The first piece of advice is this: Forget about making money on your iris. If you are not an established name in the field or do not have a large iris nursery and a catalogue with color pictures, you are not going to make much money on your seedling. Even if you are lucky and do make a few dollars, it is probably going to be at the expense of getting wide distribution and recognition of the iris.

Do not introduce your iris until you have sufficient stock. I have made the mistake of introducing an iris too soon, and then did not have enough stock to get it distributed properly. I learned the hard way. If the iris is a once-blooming tall bearded iris or a standard dwarf bearded iris, you should have a couple hundred rhizomes. If the iris is some other class, perhaps a hundred rhizomes will suffice.

Get the seedling distributed before it is introduced. If the iris is a tall bearded, border bearded, miniature tall bearded or some other type that is likely to be blooming at the time of national conventions or regional spring meetings, send it as a guest to these affairs two or three years in advance. There is always a call for guest seedlings for future conventions in the AIS Bulletin. Many regions have spring garden tours and put out calls in their newsletters for guest irises. They usually invite well-known hybridizers to send guest irises by sending them letters. As a beginner you will not be getting such a letter. So write to the various RVPs and ask them to be put on the list to get these invitations. The RVPs will gladly give your letter to whoever’s handling their guest irises for future regional meetings, and you will get a request to send your seedlings or newly introduced irises as guests. There will be a limit as to how many rhizomes of each iris. Send the maximum number allowed. Even after your seedling is registered and introduced, keep sending it as a guest to national conventions and regional spring meetings.

If your seedling is a type of iris that is not likely to be blooming at the time national conventions or regional spring meetings are held, send it to the mini-conventions held by the various AIS sections. Ever since the Society for Japanese Irises started having its own conventions back in the early 1980’s, more and more sections are having these events. Calls for guest irises for future conventions of the various sections are announced in them publications. Once your seedling is introduced, do not ask for the increase back. Donate the increase to the section for its auction   
Ask many judges in different regions if they will grow your iris and evaluate it for you. Assuming the evaluations are positive, ask the judges to donate increases to local and regional sales and auctions. Most judges will be happy to do this. In this manner your iris will get wide distribution. Also, send your new iris to test gardens such as the Dr. Loomis Memorial Trial Gardens in Colorado. Your iris will be seen by many judges at these gardens and if it is good, it will stand a good chance of picking up votes for AIS awards.   

The most important thing you can do to get recognition for your wonderful new iris is to get some really great slides made. If you are not a competent photographer, enlist the service of someone who is to take these pictures. Do not be satisfied with pictures that are mediocre-have slides that show the iris at its best. As soon as your Iris is introduced send these great slides to both the AIS Slides Chairman and the person who handles slides for the appropriate AIS section. If your region has a Slides Chairman, send a slide to this person as well.
   
Finally the single most important thing you can take to gain recognition for your iris is to take out a color ad in the AIS Bulletin - This is not cheap, but it is cheap for the benefits to be gained.
When I was introducing irises for myself and for others through The Iris Pond I never took out a color picture ad that did not pay for itself.  I cannot guarantee you that you will have the same result, but I did not care whether it did or did not pay for itself and I suggest you should not care either. By far the most important reason for taking out a color ad by a hybridizer who is starting out is to get people to see a beautiful picture of your iris.

I will be the first to admit that I sometimes took out a color ad when I did not have a great picture. So I used what I had. Do better planning than I did—get that good picture in advance.

On one occasion I had a great picture of a new introduction that I used in the Bulletin but it was the wrong picture. When The Iris Pond introduced the Siberian iris SHAKER’S PRAYER for Carol Warner, the picture I used was of a single stalk of the iris. SHAKER’S PRAYER has relatively small species-like flowers, and my friends who are “into Siberians” let me know rather quickly that they were not impressed with the iris pictured in the Bulletin. I should, of course, have had a picture of a clump of SHAKER’S PRAYER showing off its magnificent landscape value. Fortunately, soon after the ad appeared many people saw SHAKER’S PRAYER in the tour gardens at the 1991 convention. The rest of this story is now in the realm of the legends of irisdom. And as I previously wrote, even though the picture I used was not the best choice, I sold enough SHAKER’S PRAYER the first year to pay for the ad. Advertising pays.

Those who think that the great era of iris breeding is in the past are wrong. The opportunities for advances and improvements in all types of irises have just begun. Breeding irises is a fun hobby; Most people who hybridize irises for a few years get some interesting and meritorious results. Unfortunately, a majority of these good results probably do not get much recognition. What a shame. It need not be so.

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