28 June 2009

A Month in Production

A quick glimpse at the calendar followed by an unbelieving double-take tell me that July is just around the bend, ready to pounce on me unawares and I find myself once again asking the question, "What'd I do with my Felcos?". Wait, wrong question...I had it here a minute it is..."Where does the time go?" That's more like it.

Just four short weeks ago I started a new work rotation in Greenhouse Production and already the time is a pleasant blur on the film reel of my memory. The month started over in the nursery and, as it is Mum Season at Longwood, several of us were tasked with potting up a bazillion rooted cuttings that will make their debut in the gardens come fall. It was a pleasant job; we were outdoors enjoying each other's company and witty conversation but it soon became obvious that potting up bazillions of mum cuttings would eventually tip the enjoyment scale to Extreme Tediousness. We began to get a bit punchy after a while and joked about being marooned in the mum field. I decided to leave some evidence of our existence should we perish there between the serried ranks of peat pots:

Day 1 - Potting up mum cuttings. Just when one flat is finished, more appear. With four of us working, surely will be done by day's end.

Day 2 - Still in the mum field. Still potting. Looking at the empty field, it seems no dent has been made. The cuttings keep arriving with no end in sight.

Day 3 - More mums! I fear the toil is beginning to wear on us; Greg is wearing a peat pot on his head. Must find a way of escape before we all go completely potty!

And so on.

These are the mums, which arrive as rooted cuttings. Each cultivar is tagged with the name and number of cuttings in each pack. They're potted two to a pot, watered in, and schlepped out to the never ending Mum Field.

Fellow inmates, I mean work-mates, Greg, Jess, and Naoko (who is obviously feeling the toll of the endless stream of mums!).
And then we start to go a little doolally...We did actually get to spend some time in the nursery greenhouses. Here, we're battening down the hatches in anticipation of an approaching storm. The sky doesn't look too ominous yet but minutes after this was taken we enjoyed an amazing spectacle of blinding lightning, deafening thunder, and pelting rain. The power even went out momentarily. Good times!

The storm didn't phase these two (Nurseryman Matt and fellow PG Kenny).
Every work place has its own brand of silly.One day Greg and I were given a pardon, I mean transfer, to the large production greenhouses behind the conservatory and spent an educational day learning the why's and how's of various greenhouse growing mediums. We were to pot up some baby lemon trees but needed to produce the correct medium first. This green monster is the soil machine. It is capable of mixing any number of mediums for growing any number of different plants in containers with any number of soil requirements. Each hopper is filled with peat moss, compost, garden soil, perlite or vermiculite, sand, fertilizer, lime, etc. A computer program stores all the different soil recipes so once the hoppers are loaded and ready to go, all you do is click and voila! You've got soil! Greg, well upholstered and masked, prepares to load peat moss into the hopper.
Meanwhile, out in the garden, our protracted spring continues to bring unexpected delights. Out for a stroll in the gardens one day, I was stopped by this cardinal who landed in the path before me and just sat there watching me (where's a zoom lens when you need it?).

One rare sunny afternoon in my student garden brought quite a surprise. I kept hearing this strange whooshing noise and couldn't figure out where it was coming from. I found myself stealing covert glances toward the water tower at the west end of the field, wondering if it was about to explode. Then the noise was suddenly louder and came from the north. Next thing I knew, this balloon loomed over the shrubbery and was headed smack dab for The Row!

It appeared to narrowly miss one of the houses by a few feet, floated over the gardens gaining altitude, and disappeared over the Boiler Room Woods. I remembered that Boz Scaggs was performing in the Open Air Theater that night and wondered if that was his theatrical entrance - there's definitely enough room in the Cow Lot next to the theater to land a hot air balloon, and that is something I would LOVE to see - but my housemate Jamie told me later that the balloon landed in the open field next to the picnic area across the road.
Marveling at this unexpected twilight spectacle, I returned to gardening and walked a bucket of weeds down to the compost area where one of the bee hives is located. Through the tall grass I noticed something covering the bottom of the hive and crept closer for a better look.
The bees were all coming in after a long day collecting pollen and this is the resulting traffic jam!
Back in the greenhouses, some of the interns and PGs were treated to a crash course in training standards. Sharon, a fourteen-year veteran of greenhouse growing at Longwood, showed us how standards are trained, grown on, pinched, shaped, coaxed and otherwise tortured into shape. As an added bonus, we were each given two plants to train and grow (I suddenly had flashbacks to a high school health science class project!). This is my mum standard (Gah! More mums!?), a cultivar called 'Gum Drop'. Can't wait to see what the flowers look like! I also chose to train a Rosemary standard, which is nothing more than a single stem at this point. Once it reaches the top of the bamboo cane in the pot, I'll pinch the tip to encourage branching and start to shape it. The whole process takes months, sometimes years. If you're into instant gratification, training standards is not for you! You cannot say you have not been warned!

By far my favorite part of Greenhouse Production was working in the propagation house. Here is it is in all its misty glory (it's always nice to be in the propagation house leaning close to the little plants checking your work when the misters come on and douse you without warning!).

One of my favorite jobs in the greenhouse was sticking cuttings. Several stock plants are kept and propagated, the new plants grown on for use in the display gardens. So one day I got to propagate Coleus, Plectranthus, and Osteospermum. George, who's in charge of the propagation house, told us that you can stick Coleus upside-down and it'll root, which kind of takes some of the challenge out of it for me, but I was glad to be able to practice my propagation skills on such a willing specimen! The number of cuttings required from each stock plant is noted on the crop list so from this one I took 25 tip cuttings, stuck them in a cell flat, then sat back and admired the neat little plants.
There's only one problem with propagating Coleus. After taking the requisite number of cuttings for production, I had to take more for myself! It's all in the name of education, after all, and I am here to acquire new horticultural skills, am I not? Unfortunately, it's become something of a sickness and now I have not one, but two flats of various cuttings on the mist bench waiting to root in!

Just think of all the fabulous new plants these will make! It calls to mind a passage from one of my favorite garden authors, Beverly Nichols, who had a unique way of viewing propagation by cuttings:

"Do you not realize that the whole thing is miraculous? Surely, you would be surprised if, having snipped off your little finger, and pushed it into a flower pot, you were to find a miniature edition of yourself in the flower pot a day later."

Deciding against snipping off my little finger but having gotten a taste for multiplying plants, I wanted more! The most exciting day was when I was given the opportunity to do my first bud graft! Not being one to shy away from a blade (gosh, I miss my epee!) I jumped at the chance to perform botanical surgery!

What is grafting, you might ask? In short, it's a method of asexual plant propagation where the tissues of one plant are encouraged to fuse with those of another. Many commercially grown plants are grafted: most roses, for example, are grafted (ever notice the knot at the base of a rose? That's the graft point). The plant chosen for its roots is called the rootstock and the plant with the characteristics that the grower wants to replicate is called the scion (remember those terms, there will be a quiz later).

The Christmas displays at Longwood are nothing if not lavish and feature more Poinsettias than you can shake a candy cane at. The purpose of this grafting exercise was to produce Poinsettia standards (and the two lessons merge into zen!). The rootstock is a tall, upright variety and grafted to it about 6 or 7 feet from the base is a variety with a more droopy habit. Some grafts were made a few weeks prior and a few didn't take, so new grafts are being made as back ups. You can see the wound left where a failed graft was. The one below it is still green so there's a good chance it will take.

To do a bud graft, you first assemble all the tools and cuttings needed.

Taking a really sharp sterilized knife, a 'T' shaped cut is made in the stem of the patient, er, root stock at the desired height (part of me really wanted to don a white lab coat, latex gloves, surgical mask, and bark out 'scalpel!' to a waiting assistant). Then a sturdy bud is chosen and carefully shaved from the scion. The flaps of the cut are gently teased apart and the new bud is inserted. Ideally, the top part of the scion bud would be inserted as well but in this case, the root stock is pretty woody and it would be difficult to make the cut larger without increasing the chance of susceptibility to infection from pests or disease.

Jill learns the fine art of bud grafting while Lindsay looks on.
And then it was my turn - My first plant surgery!

Once the new bud is in place, we wrapped it with stretchy paraffin film to keep moisture in and help ensure good contact with the root stock. The film is then secured with rubber bands, the bud is sternly admonished to grow, dammit! and the plant is spirited back to the greenhouse where it will be watered, fed, monitored, sung to, etc. until the bud decides whether or not it's going to cooperate.

Assuming it does (and it better, by gum, because my name is now on the tag and my reputation is at stake!) it will be patiently trained into a beautiful standard like these. In three or so years it'll be big enough to star in the Christmas display!

So that was the short version of June. Thanks for reading and come back again soon, y'hear? And now a word from our Sponsor:

The Longwood PG Program Wants YOU!

No comments: