One of G2's first woody ornamental projects actually began before we started GardenGenetics. I started collecting lilac germplasm in the early 2000s, with the intent of working with the genus in my backyard. I came across the classic text Lilacs, by the late Father John Fiala, in a Timber Press catalog; bought it on a whim; and became thoroughly hooked on the amount of variation available in Syringa.
To a breeder, variation is what fuels the passion. A breeder cannot make progress without genetic variation.
So, I began collecting germplasm. And began working on breeding technique. And began making some crosses, just for grins. And then we started GardenGenetics in 2007.
Now that G2 was a business, I had to develop realistic goals for each project, including lilacs. Intense traditional "french lilac" fragrance. Large florets within large flower clusters. Single flatly open florets for maximum display. Five clean colors in a reasonably matched series. Compact plant habit, 5 to 6 ft high, 5 to 6 ft wide. Tough leathery foliage for powdery mildew-resistance. Perhaps burgundy fall color (along with purplish overtones on newly emerged leaves).
My first serious crosses were made in 2009. The seed was chilled and sown in the winter of 2009-10. None of the seedlings bloomed in 2010, and were transplanted into one of our research "strips". With luck, some of these will bloom next year. Woody ornamental breeding tends to be slow.
G2's "strips" are places in our fields where the limestone ridges prohibit us from installing one of our standard quarter-acre plots. If we can't do a plot, we try and put in a strip --- a five-foot spader-width strip 80 to 100 ft long. We use strips for our perennial and woody projects, projects which occupy the same space for multiple years.
In every seedling population, interesting things just happen. For instance, we've got a variegated lilac seedling. It behaves like it is chimeral, but if it is, it is a long way from stabilizing. And, like most variegated plants, the growth rate looks to be relatively slow. Still, it may make an interesting collector's plant. Let's see it bloom first.
We breed lilacs (and any perennial or woody species that we can) in the greenhouse in the winter. Plants are potted up in the late summer from the field; overwintered at ambient temperatures in the hoop house so the plants can vernalize; and then brought into the greenhouses in February or March to bloom. Pollination control is much better in the greenhouse; the timing of the projects fits into our schedule much better during the winter than in late spring (when EVERYTHING is blooming and needing our attention).
Once again, woody ornamental breeding is slow. First crosses in 2009. First bloom of the F1s in 2011 (maybe). With luck, first bloom of the F2s will be in 2013 or 2014. Three to five years of selection and trialing --- first ready-for-market date is not going to be before 2018, and this assumes that there are superior individuals in the F2s.
It is far more likely that the best genetic combinations will not occur until we begin making F4 x F4 crosses in 2017 or 2018. These "F1 hybrids" should have significantly improved uniformity as well as significant heterosis (hybrid vigor). But we probably won't see them until 2019 or 2020.