Mary Chastain: An Interview
by Glen Williams 

    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?

MC: I think that we can say that hostas are like people in the fact that we have tall, average, and short people. We have fat and thin people. We have healthy, sickly, and weak people. And of course, we have hair and skin of different shades and colors.
    So let's suppose you are at a ball game - Do you see a crowd or do you see a few individuals among the crowd? When selecting a plant from the crowd, I look for the few individuals that stand out. It is not necessary to search for those plants. They call to me saying, "See what I am offering!" I admit that features in plants, overlooked by many, appear pronounced to me. I can tell what others are seeing or not seeing. However, I have made an effort to never market a plant that I would fail to recognize growing in someone else's garden. In most cases I can even pick out "my" leaves shown by others in a leaf show.

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"?

MC: For medium to large sized seedlings the streaked form of 'Lakeside Roy El' (named for my husband who has also be a main stay for my adventures in the hosta world) has been the backbone of my breeding program. First I have found this variety to be very hardy and apparently slug free. It sets almost any pollen that I have ever tried. Its many offspring are vigorous. The young seedlings often fill two gallon size containers at 8 to 9 months of age. With all of these desirable traits in the pod parent, I select pollen from parents that carry gems I want to play with. For ruffling I rush to 'Lakeside Ripples'.
    'Lakeside Blue Jeans' carries that wonderful blue that I so love in the hosta garden. 'Lakeside Sir Logan' provides genes to produce heavy substance, plus its wonderful sheen. When working with small varieties, I consistently rely on 'Lakeside Knickknack'. Its rate of increase is phenomenal. This trait is carried to its seedlings. 'Lakeside Lime Tart' was registered last year and is a great example. I removed 61 crowns from its clump at 4 years of age. Once divided, it continued to produce as many as 6 divisions per crown.
    'Lakeside Kinckknack' has proven to produce small seedlings with good substance. In zone 7, the plant flowers three times each year. It readily sets almost any pollen that I have tried. Selfing it often produces miniature F1 seedlings. At this time I am most excited about a new introduction, 'Lakeside Cricket'. Attendees at First Look this year voted it the Mildred Seaver Award . It is a small white-centered plant with a rich green border. It was still looking good in November.

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?

MC: First, I am not very interested in sports. To me they too, like seedlings need to prove themselves. I do have a few sports that I am considering. One is a bordered sport of 'Lakeside Full Tide'. This plant could prove to be a nice addition to the hosta world or it could be just another sport that need not be introduced. A few more years should tell me. 'Lakeside Zinger' has produced a charming sport. It is all white with only green dots in its leaves. Everyone that sees this plant is excited. Someone even gave it the name of 'Lakeside Zing Zang'. I love looking at it. 
    In August its leaves turn a very soft shade of green. I guess this helps it store enough chlorophyll for the next season. Will I ever introduce it? Only a test of a few more years will tell. One interesting sport that I have been working to stabilize is from 'Lakeside Accolade'. The thing that makes it worth consideration is, that rather than developing the usual white or yellow margin, its border decided to be light green. So the sport is actually a deep green center with a light green edge. I have wondered if the concentration of chlorophyll in 'Lakeside Accolade' prohibits the pure white color. I have observed this same color pattern in some very dark seedlings that I am growing.
    At this time I am growing and propagating a plant that is from the same seed as 'Lakeside Prophecy'. When I divided the four year old clump, there were several crowns showing yellow markings. They are now a stable form of 'Lakeside Prophecy' with a gold border. I can't say it is a sport but I am testing it as such. If it makes the grade for introduction if will be 'Lakeside Prophecy Fulfilled'.

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?

MC: My first hosta registration resulted from a tragedy which brought great rewards. I am well known as an impatient person. My husband often says that I expect a project to be completed by the time I have thought of it. This was certainly true when I first tried to develop a hosta garden. When visiting other gardens I had simply drooled over the big beautiful clumps.
    I ordered 3 'Piedmont Gold' plants , they came with three to four small leaves. I knew from years on the farm that if my father wanted something to grow he fed it. I knew that Roy had some super nitrate. Now I was sure that this was food fit for a puny hosta. While he was away I helped myself to a nice big handful. It was generously distributed among the three pots containing my 'Piedmont Gold' plants. Sorry to say they not only did not grow, they rotted. After my mourning period had ended, I returned to the site of my crime. Lo and behold, one pot now contained four tiny plants. My heartbeat accelerated as I carefully transplanted them into fresh soil. In a few weeks they were large enough to show that this was no longer 'Piedmont Gold'. After growing these plants for six years I decided to register it and take it to a show in Atlanta. This was the first show I had ever seen but my brave plant was not intimidated. It won best of show. This was 'Lakeside Symphony'.

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?

MC: Garden visitors often become so excited over a plant that a name develops from their descriptions. One afternoon as our pastor was walking through the garden he looked down at a new seedling and remarked, "Now isn't she a Prissy Miss." In my mind the plant immediately became 'Lakeside Prissy Miss'.
    One afternoon two judges returning home from judging a show in Atlanta stopped for a trip through the garden. They exclaimed over the very dark color in a seedling. One remarked that it looked as if it had been in a coal mine. From that, 'Lakeside Coal Miner' was named.
    We have visitors from almost everywhere. A big gentleman from Cuba was here one day. As he moved slowly down the path he suddenly stopped and exclaimed as he pointed to a blue seedling, "I want Big Scoop. I want Big Scoop." Soon that seedling received the name 'Lakeside Big Scoop'.
    In June, a few years ago, a customer came into the sales area saying that she wanted to buy the plant that looked like a waterfall. After listening to her description of the plant and its location, I was able to tell her that it was an unregistered seedling and not ready for sale for another year or so. That marked the birth of 'Lakeside Waterfall'.
    From time to time family members suggest names for my creations. If I don't feel the name fits, their help is rejected. When my daughter-in-law provided the name 'Lakeside Fruit Loops' for one of my favorite little jewels, I felt the name was as unique as the plant itself.

GW: Do you have any hostas that you think have "perfect" names: those hostas where name and plant are one and the same?

MC: Sometimes the hostas seem to name themselves. My first registration 'Lakeside Symphony' is a symphony of colors for me. The three colors blend almost as one , and they have a feeling of warmth and serenity. It has always added a glow to my garden, helping to create an atmosphere of peace that is to me, is the one necessary ingredient for a perfect garden.
    'Lakeside Neat Petite', in my eyes, is a visual expression of orderliness. It has an air of precision to it.
    Once I was asked about the name 'Lakeside Shore Master'. The questioner said he had never heard of a shore master, so asked where I got the name. My reply was, "We live on the banks of Lake Chickamauga. The shore comes from that. When naming this plant, I looked over the garden and decided that this one lone plant could well develop into a master over all."
    'Lakeside Love Affaire' was a perfect description of my state of mind when the name was selected for this plant. For years I had wanted a good variety with a large white center that would stand the rigors of the Southern climate. This one answered my dreams.
    I consider 'Lakeside Black Satin' to be especially appropriate for this plant. The soft luster presents the same temptation to touch the leaf, as does the sensuous satin material itself.

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?

MC: Over a period of years I have improved the quality of my breeding program. In the beginning my one and only streaked plant was 'Yellow Splash'. The Lakeside line has developed from this and a few old varieties which I used as pollen parents. As I look at the variety of my breeding stock today, it is obvious that I have been blessed. One large house is over flowing with those selected for the future. I can choose quality plants from at least 10 strong lines. From the darkest greens to the palest yellow, from the largest in size, such as 'Lakeside Maverick', to the very smallest, from the richest blues to the most exciting streaked, they are all in the wings and waiting for final evaluation.
    All of this provides genetic material for greater variety and improved quality, which I see reflected in hostas such as 'Lakeside Shockwave', 'Lakeside Sir Logan', 'Lakeside Iron Man', 'Lakeside Shore Master', 'Lakeside Fruit Loops' and a new introduction 'Lakeside a Go Go'. The list is much longer than you want to read.

GW: Has the pleasure you have taken from the world of hostas changed and evolved over the years?

MC: At my first convention in Indianapolis in 1989, I was so in awe of the hosta kings that I wanted to stand in a corner and chew my fingers. But fortunately, my friend George Schmid came along and introduced me to Alex Summers. Before the day was over I felt like I had come a long way.
    For the first few years, I was so intensely trying to absorb information that I missed the real value of the hosta world. I wanted to see and know about every hosta grown. I would not even consider missing a "miserable" bus rid to see another garden. I drove all of those punishing miles to visit with the people, see their gardens, and listen to their hosta dreams. And that was wonderful.
    A few years later I discovered the fun of sitting in the hotel room and talking to friends while the buses were making their rounds. I am amazed at the knowledge stored in the heads of people like Pete Rue and Alex Summers. I still delight in hearing the beginner's squeal of pleasure at winning a blue ribbon.
    For the past few years now, I am often saddened for many of those who enriched my life and are no longer physically able to attend hosta events. There is a big gaping hole now, one that has to be filled with memories of the good times we shared.

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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