22 February, 2018

A First Graft Conclusion

This is the conclusion to an article that can be found at http://www.lagardenblog.com/2018/02/grafting-introduction-part-1.html

Patience my be called a 'virtue' for most of mankind, but for a grafter it is essential.” The quote originally said “gardeners” but it is more than applicable to grafters. It's my quote, I can do with it what I please.

Before I let my students actually graft a tree in class, we find some wood from an apple tree and we work on it, making straight cuts – which are useful, if not essential – for eventual grafting. You will want to be able to control the knife in making a clean, straight and even cut. It must be straight up and down, no bows or bumps, and straight across, no twists or turns, and it must be the correct length in total.

Once you have found a piece of apple wood – or other deciduous fruit - and your knife is sharp, its time to begin your practice. We are going to work with a simple Cleft graft. The down end of the scion is cut to a “V” shape and the rootstock is simply slit down the middle. I actually prefer to switch these roles where the rootstock holds the “V” shape and the scion is split down the middle. The feeling I have is that the “V” on the bottom might collect moisture and rot at some point down the road, but there are many enthusiasts that will say “that's never happened to me!” So which is up and which is down can be a matter of preference. If “simple” is your only criteria, then the “V” should be on the scion.

Cutting the “V” is important and presently you will see how many ways it can be screwed up. You would like to make it with as few strokes of the knife as possible – two strokes is perfect – but three is not uncommon. You want to avoid the “whittling” of the wood if at all possible. Once you have sliced off one portion, a lot of what has been written above will make more tangible sense that it did before.

You want a piece of wood that has a very fine point on it with both sides cut straight – no dips and/or turns in the blade as it goes through. This is harder than it sounds. Resist the urge – you will feel it – to turn the scion around, using the thumb on your right hand to brace the knife cutting the wood! I know the knife appears stuck, but when it comes unstuck, it will slice right through the wood and on into your thumb. Keep the knife blade pointed away from yourself and gently rock it back and forth. Presently it will become unstuck and you can finish the cut bloodlessly. Patience. 

A good, clean and straight cut. Note the green cambium.

A poor cut, it is not straight and there is no way to make
the cambium of this with the rootstock.
Practice this cut as many times as needed to build confidence with your ability to handle the knife. It is normal to have to sharpen your knife mid-project as needed. You will want the “V” to be a very sharp angle. Making the slice in the opposite piece to this equation, is very straight forward: as near to the center, simply rock your knife to make a straight cut about as long as your “V” on the other piece of wood.

Before you begin to put them together, begin to wrap the rootstock with the Parafilm. Pull the Parafilm tight as you wrap, stretching it out and binding it to itself until you reach the beginning of the nascent graft. Place the the two wood pieces together. Inspect for cambium to cambium connection – this is the essential part of the graft. Wherever the cambium of these two pieces meet is the beginning of your new tree. If they don't meet, you have wasted your time and the tree's resources. Once you are certain you have the most cambium meeting you can, hold that graft very tightly while you finish wrapping the Parafilm over the graft. You can simply pull hard on the Parafilm and it will break where you end.

The receiving end for the cut's above.  Fitting the straight edge into
this piece of rootstock will be a piece of cake while
the curved cut will fail.
If the tip of your scion was cut, you should also wrap that in Parafilm. Remember, loss of water and cambium not matching are the two major causes of graft failure. Parafilm is relatively cheap, so use more than less!

Your graft, if done properly, will show signs of taking in 3 to 4 weeks, sometimes more, occasionally less. The weather has a lot to do with it. If you failed, don't worry. You've just joined the very large majority of grafters that have failed once or twice. Or more.  Whether or not your graft takes, make sure you examine the whole process and evaluate how well you were prepared and what parts of your technique needs refinement and work with yourself to improve your chances.

And know that every year, you must revisit these skills anew. I usually set aside a couple of one hour slots for a few weeks before grafting to get my skills into top shape.

Remember to remind yourself that grafting, while a science, is also an art. Some are gifted grafters, while the rest of us must work at it. But practice does make perfect.

This is your first graft to learn – there are more. I'll be doing an informal series on grafting over the next few months. Stay tuned and if you don't understand something – ask questions! I'll answer them for everyone's benefit.

The motto for all grafters should be:


13 February, 2018

A First Graft Introduction

This is intended to be a down and dirty introduction to grafting.  I am sorry it could not be kept to one blog post. I will post the finale in a day or two.  

Grafting is probably considered the most “mystical” of arts in that area known as “horticulture” as practiced by the gardening public. It is not mystical any more than sunrise and sunset is, but if you don't know the basics, it can be forbidding. Know the rules and it's just as common as a sunrise, don't learn the rules and you are lost.

Soon, I'll write out the story of how I came to be totally in awe of grafters and the event that changed my approach to garden science. In this small intro, I will introduce the basics of grafting as simply and straight forward as I can.

The absolute first thing to say about grafting is that you are working with really, really sharp knives.  Your first priority must be safety - afterall, you will be using YOUR fingers and these knives are sharp.  Have bandaids - at minimum, if not a well stocked first aid kit. ALL grafters I know, except those that ride motorcycles really (REALLY) fast, have at least some kind of first aid material in the same bag as their knives. Pay attention.  Ask those around you to not talk to you while you are grafting.  Do not graft while on the phone.  Do not graft while driving.  Give that knife and where it is pointed your full attention - all the time that blade is exposed. If it's sharp enough to graft, it's sharp enough to cut into you all the way to the bone.  I've done it. It doesn't hurt until it hits the bone and then it hurts for a very long time. Never point the sharp end of the blade towards any part of your body - especially your left thumb - that's the one that gets nailed the most.  Please! And thank you!

You need;
A very sharp knife
Two pieces of wood (described below)
And something to hold them together

These are grafting knives;  the bottom wood handled knife is a Tina bench grafting knife - it doesn't fold and cannot
carried with ease in a pocket, the next knife up is a Swiss Army in my favorite blade style (identical blade to the one above it), the next knife is usually considered best for budding.  The one on farthest right is just another grafting blade. The knife at
the top is my favorite - "new old stock" from eBay. I love the feel of this knife and use it for most of my work. It is resting on a roll of half inch Parafilm.
Your sharp knife does not have to be a grafting knife, although if you intend to graft as an ongoing project, you will find a grafting knife increases your chances of a good graft. Some grafters simply use those utility box cutters and break off the old blades instead of having to sharpen the blades. I found that a difficult tool to handle – but then again, I am pleased with my grafting knives and enjoy using different ones on different days, but that's me and my obsessive/compulsive personality.

But your knife must be SHARP. Even if you need to stop every several cuts and hone it a little.
The “Something to hold them together” has really improved in the last few years. In the past grafters have used plastic bags, electrical tape, duct tape (omigaud NO!) and tar. Today we have “Parafilm” and without it, I would not be a very good grafter. This stuff (can be found on eBay and Amazon as well as other sites – I even have a few rolls to sell pretty much all the time as I buy in bulk for my class). It is not expensive. As you pull on it, to wrap your graft, the Parafilm becomes more pliable and will actually begin to seal to itself with just a little pressure. When firmly wrapped, in all but the most difficult of grafts, Parafilm will hold your graft together. Certainly as a beginner, you would not normally be undertaking grafts that were above the cohesion of Parafilm to hold it together.

The “two pieces of wood” is what makes this all interesting. One piece of wood is a “scion” while the other piece of wood is “rootstock.” The scion possesses the fruit you want to grow on the rootstock. The rootstock is the rest of the tree that is not this scion. You can graft five apples to one tree. All the pieces you graft to the tree are 'scions.' That which holds them from falling to the ground is the 'rootstock.' In the case of the apples, the scion is collected because we want that apple's taste or usability; an eating apple or a cider apple, one that bears in late Spring and another the blooms in late Summer – whatever characteristics you feel you want in an apple.

If this is your first shot at grafting, I would strongly urge you to graft apples – the apple tree wood is easier to work with and the chance of success is strong. Citrus is one of the worst as it is really hard wood and difficult to shape. Get some miles under your knife and then tackle citrus.

The rootstock can be an existing tree on your property or you can order rootstock from some regional nurseries – they are not expensive. One chooses rootstock on it's qualities – some rootstocks withstand disease or wind or drought or dwarf your tree by a given percent. In Southern California most experienced apple growers would choose M111. I order my rootstock (sometimes referred to as “wood” in a generic way) from Raintree Nursery. They have always been reliable and prompt.  

Now we get to make our cuts. The scion wood should be about the diameter of a pencil and the part of the rootstock you are going to attach the scion to should be about the same diameter – it need not be exact, but the closer it is the better.

This shot, while of a rose, shows the ring around the stem that is called the Cambium. It is the living tissue of woody plants  and this tissue on your rootstock must be touching the scion's cambium. That is the thrust of grafting.

Thanks for dropping by - hope you get the chance to see my interview with Christy Wilhelmi, The Gardenerd on grafting coming out in a few days. And I'll wrap this, and our graft, up later this week.

The conclusion of this article can be found at http://www.lagardenblog.com/2018/02/a-first-graft-conclusion.html

03 February, 2018

Tomatoes The Gateway Drug to Gardening

Two really ripe cherry tomatoes and two getting ripe with a bunch of green tomatoes.

These pages comprise my notes for my February 3rd class, "Tomatoes, The Gateway Drug to Gardening.  While this does contain a lot of data, it certainly misses most of the off-the-wall impromptu humor that naturally happens whenever I open my mouth.

Caring For Tomatoes

  • Tomatoes are a warm weather crop. Usually setting them out in Southern California about tax day (April 15th) is a good bet.
  • Tomatoes prefer about 6 to 8 hours of sun to bring out their best flavors. You can cheat if you have a white wall that will reflect light – and heat – back to them, but too little light will result in weak and non-productive plants.
  • You will need to stake, trellis, or cage, and sometimes all three, your tomato plants to keep them off the ground. Have your support system ready when planting the tomatoes – waiting is guaranteed to see the tomatoes 6 feet long before you find yourself trying to coral those vines desperately into cages they refuse to go into. Save yourself (and the plants!) the grief!
  • Give each plant enough room to grow. Space “robust,” (along with “vigorous” these are code words for “tomato plants on steroids” - take these terms seriously) long-vined, indeterminate varieties about 3 feet apart. Stockier determinate plants can be grown 2 feet apart. Growing in containers, you’ll need at least a 36 to 48 inch pot for an indeterminate variety, or a 24 inch pot for a determinate variety. And stakes. And twine.
  • At the same time, lay 3 to 4 inches of compost on top of the soil which will provide minor nutrients and help hold moisture in the soil, keeping the moisture tomatoes love.
  • To grow a really strong tomato plant, bury two-thirds of the stem when planting. This will allow the plant to sprout roots along the buried stem, making your plant will be stronger and better able to find water in a drought. Please note that this deep-planting method only works with tomatoes (and tomatillos). Another note; if you are putting tomatoes into soil that has not yet warmed, lay the stem sideways under the soil surface in order to not go deep into the colder soil. Tomatoes planted in cool soil will never forgive you and will perform worse than tomatoes planted two weeks late in warmer soil.
  • Do not use Nitrogen fertilizer on your tomatoes! The plants will be bright green and lush but will not produce fruit until the N is burnt up. I don't know why, it just is. I tend to not use fertilizer at all, just copious amounts of compost. Most of our soils are loaded with enough nutrients to grow healthy plants, except N, which tomatoes don't need. Do not plant tomatoes in an area that grew beans or bean family crops last year, the Nitrogen they produce in the soil will still be present.
  • Immediately after planting, water seedlings to help settle them in.

  • You can combine fast-maturing varieties with special season-stretching techniques to grow an early crop – you will have tomatoes coming in much more regularly and the variety IS the spice of life.
  • Cover the ground with 2 to 4 inches of mulch to minimize weeds and help keep the soil evenly moist. Straw and shredded leaves make great mulches for tomatoes.
  • Water regularly, aiming for at least an inch of moisture per week (through rain or watering), more in the summertime. Even more during the Santa Ana winds. Keep your eye on your plants whenever you go out to pick. Irregular watering is one of the causes of blossom end rot, a fungus that ruins tomato fruit by rotting from the far side of the tomato (where the flower once was) and turning your fruit to an unappetizing mush.
  • Plant a variety of tomatoes, for different colors, different tastes, but more importantly to allow for different harvesting days. It does not hurt to plant more seeds in June/July for a fall crop. Sometimes this close to the ocean we get a better tomato harvest off the later plants. May's Malaise and June Gloom can be deadly to tomatoes.

Tomato Varieties
Tomato varieties can be divided into categories based on shape and size. Some of the more popular of these are:

  • Beefsteak tomatoes are 4” or more in diameter, often sliced for sandwiches and similar applications. They may weigh in at over a pound or more. Their kidney-bean shape, thinner skin, and shorter shelf life makes commercial use impractical. But their flavor is usually among the most “tomatoey” of all varieties. These are often the “heirloom” tomatoes prized for that taste. Beefsteak tomatoes are the largest tomatoes and will not reliably produce a crop close to the coast. They need a constant 85ยบ day and night to set fruit. Because of our ocean influence, we rarely meet that condition and so production of beefsteak tomatoes can be scarce.
  • Slicing tomatoes are the ones often found in markets – not as large as the beefsteak tomato, but weighing in from 6 to 12 ounces, these round fruits are the common tomato to be sliced into salads or topping of tacos. Most tomatoes consumed in the US are slicing tomatoes and they will set fruit easily in our climate.
  • Plum tomatoes, or paste tomatoes (including pear tomatoes), are bred with a lower water /higher solids content for use in tomato sauce and paste, for canning and sauces and are usually oblong 3–4” long and 1½ – 2” diameter; like the Roma-type tomatoes, important cultivars in making tomato sauces – the famed San Marzano tomato is one of these. Other tomatoes, round like fresh eating tomatoes may be used for sauces, like the Burbank Slicer which doubles nicely for a paste tomato as well.
  • Cherry tomatoes are small and round, often sweet tomatoes, about the same ½ – 1”, same size as the wild tomato. Cherry tomatoes will set fruit the easiest and most prolific. I have always maintained that one eats cherry tomatoes only in the garden, you plant them to keep the gardener working and do not serve them because they are notoriously fork-adverse, slipping from one plate to another person's eyeball. Leave them in the garden or serve them presliced.

Determinate vs Indeterminate

Another classification of tomatoes is according to their growth habit. Most tomatoes are “Indeterminate.” Left alone, they will continue to grow longer and longer vines until stopped by cold weather or lack of water. Lack of things to climb on does not figure. The good news is that all the continuous growth will produce more tomatoes. With Indeterminate tomatoes, you get tomatoes over a long period of time.

Determinate tomatoes on the other hand, grow to their full height – usually about 3 feet – and stop. They flower and then all the fruits that plant will produce, will be produced in one flush and the plant dies. This is great for folks who wish to can tomatoes or tomato juice. If one is planting a determinate tomato only and wants tomatoes through the summer, a second and third planting will be required. Determinate tomatoes are the best for container and balcony growing.

Common Tomato Pests and Diseases

Some common tomato pests are stink bugs, cutworms, tomato hornworms and tobacco hornworms, aphids, cabbage loopers, whiteflies, tomato fruitworms, flea beetles, red spider mite, slugs, and Colorado potato beetles. The tomato russet mite, Aculops lycopersici, feeds on foliage and young fruit of tomato plants, causing shriveling and necrosis of leaves, flowers, and fruit, possibly killing the plant.

A common tomato disease is tobacco mosaic virus. Handling cigarettes and other infected tobacco products can transmit the virus to tomato plants.

A common condition is Blossom End Rot caused by indifferent water. Tomatoes, while not being a water hog, need consistent watering. Watering too little followed by compensative overwatering will create fruits that rot from the blossom end destroying the palatability of the fruit.

Tomato seeds offered at the class, were presented as follows: 

*Limited Supply refers to the amount of seed I had of each at the class.  Students were asked to confine themselves to only one of the "limited supply" varieties. 

Limited supply*
All days to ripeness are from transplant!
Amish Paste

Acquired from the Amish near Lancaster, PN. Bright red 8-12 ounce fruits. Juicy flesh – top notch for sauce and fresh eating. One of Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste varieties. 85 days
Seed Savers Exchange
Black Krim

Russian tomato with deep red and green color. 8 ounce fruits with a deep, salty flavor. All the “Black” tomatoes have thin skins and can be a chore to harvest wnen fully ripe, but they are worth the hassle. Also a good container tomato, 80 days
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply

A small heirloom slicer that can be used for paste as well. Developed by Luther Burbank,  3-4 inch fruit. The fruit has a very deep red color and a traditional tomato flavor. About 8 ounce fruit – great for containers!! 75 days One of David's favorites!
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply
Chocolate Cherry
Purplish-red 1” cherry tomatoes are sweet and are good for snacking (isn't that why we like cherry tomatoes?) Prolific vines bear trusses of 6 to 8 fruits at a whack. About 70 days.
Botanical Interests
David Davidson
Mid-size orange glove tomatoes in clusters o up to 7fruits. Great flavoer hinting of citrus. Keeps well. 90 days.
Seed Savers Exchange
Djena Lee's Gold Girl

Golden-orange fruits. 8 oz fruits. Delicious flavor, rich balance of sweetness and tanginess. 80 days
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Eva Purple Ball

Heirloom from Germany, 78 days, cherry red, 4 to 5 ounces, smooth round fruits
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Gold Medal
“The sweetest tomato you ever tasted.” An orangish-yellow with streaks of red, a wonderful bi-color tomato weighing more than 1 pound! Not good at the coast!! 75-90 days
Seed Savers Exchange
Illini Gold

4-6 oz bright yellow/orange paste-type tomatoes – 75 days; makes a sweet golden tomato sauce!
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Meaty fruits full of flavor and prolific production made this one of the best commercial tomatoes in years past. Prefers hot (and humid) summers. 75 to 80 days
Botanical Interests
Nebraska Wedding
Reliable producer of stunning 4” round fruits with glowing orange skin. Well-balanced flavor. @ 36” tall – still need some staking. 85 to 90 days
Seed Savers Exchange
Paul Robeson
Russian variety popular amoung tomato connoisseurs named for a famous Russian opera singer. Dusky brick red 6 to 12 ounces, nice acid/sweet balance, 80-90 days
Seed Savers Exchange
Red Zebra
Gorgeous 2½” round fruits, blood-red overlaid with jagged carrot-orange stripes. Very productive, slightly tart. 75 – 80 days.
Seed Savers Exchange
½ D
Rutgers University released this new “retro” variety to try to get back to the original “Jersey tomato” qualities of flavor, juiciness, texture, vigor, and all the other good stuff. Red round medium fruits. A tasty tomato bred for home gardeners 75 days @ 6 to 8 ounces
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Rutgers (the original)

Strong and vigorous vines, bear bright red 6 to 8 ounce fruits with excellent flavor – this is the tomato my grandfather planted year in and year out. Also good for sauce. A great all-purpose tomato. 75 days
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply

75 days and will set fruit in cool and wet weather! 9-12 oz fruits for slices, Prolific. 75 days
Lake Valley Seed
Sungold Cherry
Just a few seeds! Tangerine colored fruits are among the best tasting cherry tomatoes in the world. The only hybrid in this list! 57 days
Botanical Interests
Sweetie Cherry

A well known tomato for it's strong tomato flavor. Smaller cherries (¾ to 1”) still have a great taste and are produced in clusters. Vigorous vines. 65 days
Botanical Interests
Introduced in 1870, sold at that time for $5/pkt (equal to today's $80!) sweet 5 to 7 ounce tomatoes ideal for slicing. 80 days
Seed Savers Exchange

Heirloom producing large orange 8 – 10 ounce fruits – firm with few seeds. Vigorous plant needs staking, A Slow Food USA selection. 75 days
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply
White Cherry

Like eating candy. Can be grown in containers, Early fruiting 70 days – 1 ounce fruits.
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply
Yellow Bell

Roma shaped yellow fruits, Great yellow sauce tomato for salads or for making lovely tomato paste, juice, preserves, salsa, and yellow catsup!  Survives cool wet conditions better than other sauce tomatoes. 60 days
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange