Roots Do It

Some people get their kicks from hang gliding; some from racing cars. Call me mundane, but I get a similar thrill, minus the fear, from seeing cuttings of some new varieties of figs that I am propagating take root. The cool thing about hang gliding, racing cars, and rooting cuttings is also the sense of satisfaction you get from doing it well.

The current batch of cuttings provides special satisfaction because the method I used, gleaned from the web (see, for instance, what turns up with a search for “fig pops”), permit me to check and observe progress frequently. Usually, I stick a cutting into a rooting mix and learn that rooting has taken place by the resistance of the stick to an upward tug or by roots escaping through the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot. With fig pops, I get to see each cuttings wiry, white roots wending their way through the rooting mix soon after they first start to develop. Fig pops are also a way to root lots of cuttings in a small space.
A fig pop
The current figs are rooting in 3” by 8” clear, thin plastic bags filled with my usual 1:1 mix of moist peat moss and perlite.  I pushed the cuttings, fig “sticks” of last year’s growth 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick, into the mix almost to the bottom, then sealed the top closed with a twist-tie. One cutting per bag. Roots need to breathe, so I poked each bag full of holes with a toothpick. That’s it, except when the bags seemed too dry I stood them in a pan with a couple of inches of water for awhile.

(Dipping the cuttings in a commercially available rooting hormone would probably improve rooting, but I don’t use them. To me, the health precautions needed when dealing with them takes the fun out of gardening.)

All that, and time, would have been enough. But to speed things up, I moved the cuttings to a place where they’d get some warmth on their bottoms. That could have been atop a refrigerator, above, but not on a radiator, or, in the case of my cuttings, on a seedling heating mat.
Fig pops
Fig pops together in tubNo light is needed until cuttings start to leaf out. Which is an exciting moment, because roots might — or might not — begin to show about then. All that’s needed is to lift a fig pop and take a look. Some of mine showed roots after only 3 weeks! But it’s good to let them get well rooted before disturbing them.
Rooted figs
When the time came to move a well rooted cutting, I sliced the plastic on the bottom and up along one side of its bag and put the whole root ball in a bona fide pot, filling in with bona fide potting soil around it.

That’s it. Growth will pick up with increasing warmth and sunlight. And then fruit, which could arrive on the branches even this growing season. Figs are admittedly easy to root by any method. As with any cutting, an important ingredient for success is patience.

Graft (Nonpolitical) is Good

Moving on, next week, to another perennial source of excitement here in the garden: grafting. I do this every year about now? Why every year? Because I’m always getting scions (1-year-old stems for grafting) of new varieties of fruits, mostly pears, to try out or to replace existing varieties. Or I might want another tree or two of a variety particularly worth growing here.

If I’m replacing an existing variety, I do a Henry the Eighth on the tree, lopping off its head, low, to graft a new variety onto the remaining stump. With the established root system underfoot, these grafts grow very vigorously and bear relatively quickly — sometimes the year after grafting. 

Alternatively, I make a whole new tree by grafting a scion onto a one-year-old rootstock that I purchase or grow. These small trees will take longer to come into bearing, how long depending on the kind and variety of fruit, and the rootstock.

Stump of older graft

Stump of older graft

A rootstock, whether the remaining stump of a lopped back mature tree or a pencil-thick young plant, has to be closely related to the scion that will be grafted atop it for the graft to be successful. Rootstock and scion in the same genus generally do well together, so pear on pear, apple on apple, even peach on plum are compatible. Occasionally, plants in the same family but different genus, such as pear and quince, also join well.

Whip graft close up

Whip graft

One way to create a rootstock would be to just plant a seed, giving rise to the appropriately named “seedling” rootstock. A seedling rootstock’s main claims to fame might be its general toughness and its genetic diversity from other seedlings. That genetic diversity is a downside if you want to plant an orchard of uniform trees; it’s an asset if you don’t want some pest all of a sudden wiping out all your plants with genetically the same rootstocks.

Rootstocks have been selected or bred that impart special qualities to a tree, and these rootstocks are propagated not by seed, but by any one of a number of methods of cloning (cuttings, tissue culture, mound layering, etc). Most dramatic might be the effect on plant size. The Malling 27 variety of apple rootstock, for instance results in a tree that matures at about 7 feet high. As with many dwarfing rootstocks, the tree also yields its first harvest quickly with, although less fruit per tree than a larger tree, more fruit per sure foot of space. And you can plant many dwarf trees in the same space as one full-size tree.
Apple rootstocks
Dwarf trees also have the advantage that pruning, harvesting, and other needs can be met with your feet planted on terra firma. Any disadvantages? Yes: more finicky about growing conditions, much shorter lifespan, and often needing staking throughout their lives. But there are many rootstocks from which to choose, especially with apples and pears, so you can choose what suits you from a fully dwarfing tree on up to full-size tree. A rootstock might also be selected for its tolerance for certain soil conditions, hardiness, and other environmental hazards.

Most important: The rootstock, for all its effects, has little or no influence on the flavor of fruit grafted upon it.

I’ll be grafting next week. Stay tuned for the 2 or 3 easy grafts I use to make trees.


Spring Dreams

Looking out a window today, all I see is white, a thick blanket of snow covering the ground and howling winds periodically puff clouds of it swirling into the air. Still, I can feel the pull of spring. Perhaps it’s the bright sunlight. Couple that with the colorful gardening magazines and catalog strewn on the kitchen table, and how can I resist vicarious planting — by ordering plants instead.

David Austin roses, whose blooms have the look and fragrances of yesteryear (pastel colors and blowsy form), and the repeat blooming of pest-resistance of presentyear roses, are always a draw. Every year, new varieties are offered, some, I’m gad to see, that are cold-hardy to zone 4.

Rose, L. D. Braithwaite

Rose, L. D. Braithwaite

And m–m-m-m, the thought of picking fresh, ripe sweet cherries is also enticing. No, no! I ordered and planted what was allegedly a self-fertile Compact Stella cherry tree seven years ago. It wasn’t compact and it has yet to bear a cherry. I tell others that sweet cherries are a poor bet around here because of winter cold, spring frosts, and various inset and disease pests. And, after that, even if fruits do develop, birds will likely eat them. I should have been listening when I dispensed that advice.

The cherry tree has one more season to prove it’s worth. If it doesn’t, I have a replacement plant (hardy orange, Citrus trifoliata) anxiously waiting in the wings.Hardy orange

I’ve always wanted to plant a magnolia, of which there are many newer and older varieties, but where could I plant it? Now that I think of it, I did plant a magnolia last spring. It died. And a few years back, I planted a sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) purchased on an impulse at a nursery a few years ago. I remember planting it, but not what happened to it, except that it’s no longer around.

The magnolia that I really want to plant is southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora. This large evergreen gracing many homes from Virginia southward with its large, glossy, dark green leaves and it’s large, lily-white, fragrant blossoms seems to politely call for a chair in its shade, a frosty mint julep on the armrest.

Problem is that southern magnolias are not hardy here — yet. I know of a gorgeous tree about an hour south of here and two varieties — Edith Pogue and Bracken’s Brown Beauty — are hardy below zero degrees F. It hardly gets below zero here these past few winters and, with global warming . . . ?

Yes, it is hard to keep my wits about me as spring approaches, and will be increasingly so as spring edges in. “I will not buy another sweet cherry tree, I will not buy another apricot tree (even more problematic), I will not buy another magnolia (yet), . . .”

Dorris, I’d Like To Meet You

Uh oh, another new variety of filbert from the breeding program at Oregon State University. This variety, Dorris, is, like some of its recent predecessors, immune to the eastern filbert blight that has for so long made filbert growing east of the Rockies unfeasible. They’re breeding blight-resistant filbert in Oregon because the blight fungus has made its way west.

Filbert nut harvest last fall

Filbert nut harvest last fall

But eastern filbert blight is a capricious fungus, sometimes changing in a way that let’s it attack even “resistant” filberts. So I’m constantly cutting down diseased filberts and replanting “resistant” ones. One of the newest varieties, which will get a spot in the line of filberts that draws my eyes and footsteps along the edge of  meadow, is Dorris.

Good luck Dorris.

Making Trees

Some trees and shrubs coming to my garden this year are going to be home-made, that is, created by me from seeds, cuttings, or grafts. To that end, I recently collected hackberry seeds as well as scions (for grafting) of persimmon, pear, and cornelian cherry, and packed them all away in an insulated box in my garage. I will deal with them in a few weeks.

Gathering scionwood

Gathering scionwood

Collecting scionwood for grafting segue nicely with pruning. From the prunings strews about on the ground, I cut and save one-year-old stems into foot-long sections.


Paradise Under Glass, and I Take a Bit of it Home

Wandering in and out of the narrow alleys, I could barely squeeze past other, potential buyers. On my way back from a lecture and book selling, a wad of money was burning a hole in my pocket. I muttered to a young couple who glanced up to let me pass, “I feel like a drug addict.” A fleeting, sympathetic smile, and they, like others, were again intent on the offerings, hardly aware, like us other “addicts,” of other humanity.Inside Logee's Greenhouses.

I was lucky, able to leave Logee’s Greenhouses in Danielson, CT only $75 poorer. But richer in plants. Perched on the tray that I carried to my car were small plants of fragrant wax plant (Hoya odorata), Nordmann Seedless Nagami kumquat, and Golden Nugget mandarin (tangerine), all three promising to offer, for years to come, sweet fragrance, beauty, and good eating in the case of the mandarin and kumquat. By not allowing myself to dawdle, I was able to keep my trembling hand from grabbing at a Black Mission fig plant, a Dwarf Cavendish banana plant (“only 3 feet high!”), or a Hoya lauterbachii, with fragrant blooms the size of teacups. 

Most of Logee’s plants are small and not cheap, understandable considering the wide array of plants they stock. Aside from my kumquat and mandarin, I could have chosen from among a dozen other citrus varieties, including some interesting oddities like Buddah’s Hand Citron, whose fruit does, in fact, look like the draped fingers on a hand. Instead of the fragrant wax plant, I could have driven home with any one of 15 other species or varieties of wax plant. Not that Logee’s is limited only to fragrant or fruiting plants. They stock almost a 100 different kinds of begonias, among other houseplants.

Part of the jasmine collection at Logee's

Part of the jasmine collection at Logee’s

Entering the greenhouses is an experience very unlike that of entering most commercial greenhouses, the latter with their soaring roofs of crystal-clear glass, their buoyant atmosphere, and scoured concrete floors. Logee’s is Paradise for plant lovers, with a mix of concrete and dirt paths so narrow that leaves and tendrils grab at you from either side. Fortunately, plants are more organized at Logee’s than in Paradise: collections of such plants as citrus, passionflower, orchids, and angel’s trumpets are each grouped together. Perhaps the star of the show is the Ponderosa lemon tree, shipped by train then horse and buggy to the greenhouse in 1900 and still bearing crops of grapefruit sized lemons (also called American Wonder lemon and thought to be a hybrid of lemon and citron, originating as a seedling the 1880s). Over the years, it’s given rise to numerous offspring, one of which you can purchase, growing in a 2.5” pot, for $11.95.

Citrus: New Plants from Old

New plants of Ponderosa lemon and other citrus varieties can be propagated one of three ways.

Lemons and limes tend to root easily from cuttings, which are leafy branches with their bases plunged into a moist rooting medium such as a 1:1 mix of perlite and peat moss. Because citrus are evergreen, air around the cuttings has to be kept humid enough so the still-rootless stems don’t dry out. A clear plastic or glass tent does the trick. The leaves need to photosynthesize so they have energy to make roots, so some light is needed. Not too much, though, or the cuttings cook in their tent.

Special rooting hormones, which are synthetic analogues of natural plant hormones, help cuttings to root. Synthetic hormones are used because they decompose more slowly than natural hormones (and in different concentrations, are used as herbicides, such as 2,4-D). Another possibility is to soak the cuttings in water in which have steeped stems of willow, a plant that roots very easily so presumably has some root-stimulating goodies to share. I avoid the hassle of natural or synthetic hormones in rooting cuttings and, instead, pay careful attention to which stems I select for rooting, the rooting medium, and light.

Some citrus varieties can be propagated by seed. Usually a seed-propagated fruit gives rise to a baby different from the mother plant, reflecting the jumbling around of chromosomes as pollen and egg cells united. However, a few plants, and many citrus, exhibit apomyxis, where the seeds, although they look like normal seeds, are formed from cells of only the mother plant.

My new plant acquisitions: hoya and 2 citrus.

My new plant acquisitions: hoya and 2 citrus.

All the seedlings, then, are clones of each other and their mother. Well, not all, because in a given fruit, some seeds may be apomyctic and others may be the product of pollination. The apomyctic seedlings show their presence by their greater vigor and more upright stature.

Downsides to propagation by seedlings, apomyctic or otherwise, are that plants must go through a juvenile phases of some years before they are old enough to flower and fruit. Also, most citrus tend to be very thorny in their youth.

Kumquats Roots for Tangerine Tops

One way I justified my purchases at Logee’s was with my plan to use my new citrus plants to make more plants — by grafting, the third way of propagating citrus. All that’s needed is any citrus rootstock; they all are graft compatible. Not being able to throw away seeds, I have a few kumquat rootstocks started from seeds I spit out from my Meiwa kumquat fruits as I ate them a couple of years ago.

I’ll graft in spring, taking stems from the Golden Nugget mandarin to make a whip graft, a particularly easy kind of graft that gives quick results. Basically, a smooth, sloping cut on the kumquat rootstock will be matched against a similarly smooth, sloping cut on the “scion,” which is the stem I cut from the mandarin stem, with both bound together with a wrap of tape or cut rubber band. After removing leaves from the scion, grafting compound (Tree-Kote) or Parafilm seals the graft and scion against dessication before the scion and rootstock knit together, and the scion piece begins to grow.

The final step will be deciding what to do with my growing citrus orchard in pots. Plants for my annual sale, perhaps? The largest citrus orchard (potted) in the Hudson Valley?