Friday, February 10, 2017

Winter Propagation

Sciadopitys verticillata

We're racing – occasionally staggering – down the home stretch of our winter's propagation. The rooted cuttings are 95% finished...or maybe we're totally done after all. I don't know if we'll do any Sciadopitys this winter or just skip them. We get a fair amount to root though they take their time, but the problem is that the center bud rots out, and a new one will not develop even if the original cutting stick has roots. It can stay in that suspended state for years – green but with no new growth ever to appear. The umbrella whorl traps water and perhaps they are misted too often; but before they root they have to have mist. If I was younger I would rig up a fog system or at least experiment with alternative methods, but since I'm long in the tooth now it is easier just to skip a year.

Eric Lucas tending the cuttings

Another problem is that we no longer offer custom rooted cuttings to other wholesale growers, whereas twenty years ago we produced a couple hundred thousand every year. We discontinued for two reasons: 1) it was a lot of work for small profit and 2) due to the recession in about 2009 many long-time customers went bankrupt or at least gripped about their finances, so orders were either canceled or never placed. Good, good for Buchholz Nursery, and now we just produce cuttings for ourselves, and other surviving nurseries will just have to find them elsewhere. But since we attempt to root only 10 percent of what we used to, we don't have a “propagator” anymore. We have ladies who cut and plant the cuttings, but that's all they do. They want absolutely no responsibility for the crop – like setting the mist based on day length and temperature, or checking the bottom heat temperatures...or checking to see if the boiler is running at all. Consequently Eric Lucas, our office manager, is also the de facto propagation manager. He knows that even if all of the cuttings die he won't get fired.

Pinus mugo 'Carsten's Winter Gold'

Pinus mugo 'Carsten's Winter Gold'

Pinus koraiensis 'Silveray'

Calocedrus decurrens 'Berrima Gold'

I would guess that today we are 88% finished with our winter grafting, the propagation method that is and always has been our primary means of producing plants. I generally juggle three rootstocks at the same time, so today we finished the two-needle pines with Pinus mugo 'Carsten's Winter Gold' grafted onto seedling “Scot's Pine,” Pinus sylvestris. Also Pinus koraiensis 'Silveray' was spliced onto Pinus strobus rootstock – both compatible five-needle pines. Then we also began to bestow upon our five hundred Calocedrus decurrens seedlings the golden cultivar, 'Berrima Gold', and we'll also do some 'Maupin Glow', the variegated green-gold “Incense cedar” discovered in central Oregon.

Juana at her grafting station

It can be a drag to stand under the fluorescent lights and graft all day. Juana can typically perform 550-600 grafts per day if all is prepared and set up for her, and I suppose that doing two or three different kinds of plants helps relieve her monotony. I know that for me it does. I hate cutting the prickly two-needle pines – since I can't and have never used gloves – so mixing into the day's scions some softer five-needle pines is a blessing. Furthermore the prickly pines are usually dwarves that dwell at ground level, and as I age that's a further and farther distance to reach.

Thuja plicata 'Whipcord'

Thuja orientalis 'Franky Boy'

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Butterball'
Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Chirimen'

Tomorrow we'll tackle the Thuja standards. In the trade a “standard” is a straight trunk that's usually one-to-three feet tall with the desirable cultivar top-grafted. It doesn't matter whether or not I like plants presented that way – and I usually don't – nevertheless our customers do. So on Thuja plicata rootstock we'll attach the arching thread-branch Thuja plicata 'Whipcord', and after about five years of growing we'll have a Dr. Seuss-like creature. The same with Thuja orientalis 'Franky Boy' which will be attached to straight trunks of the “Oriental arborvitae.” Finally Chamaecyparis obtusa dwarves will be top-grafted onto Thuja occidentalis 'Smaragd' trunks. 'Green Cushion' and 'Butterball' make for cute standards, and for the past couple of years we have also been producing the relatively new 'Chirimen' that way.

The goal is to have what no one else grows, and then when they finally copy you, you have moved on to something that they haven't thought of yet. My nursery career has been a sprint, with about 13,500 days (so far) working for myself and my family (ies). Mine is a small company where the primary objective is to financially survive, and believe me I always run scared. The young, smarter nurserymen are always nipping at my heels...and it reminds me of what I did thirty years ago when I stole customers from the sleepy hicks who preceded me.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Lutea'

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Aurora'

We also have Thuja occidentalis 'Smaragd' in 3 1/2” pot for low grafting, and the primary candidates are the dwarf Chamaecyparis obtusa cultivars. This morning in the rain I cut 'Nana Lutea', 'Aurora' and 'Gold Post', the latter being a new compact narrow-upright. Every one of these has also been rooted earlier, and they will eventually grow into salable plants, but the grafts on the more hardy and sturdy arborvitae rootstock gives them a couple of year's head start over those cutting grown. So why not grow all the hinokies via grafting? The answer is that it is a more expensive process and one usually grows the grafts to specimen size to recover that extra cost, whereas with cuttings we can sell a pot that's three or four years old for three or four dollars. Besides, the same stock tree that yields thirty good scions can also supply us with maybe 200 (smaller) cuttings.

Microbiota decussata at the Rhododendron Species Botanic Garden

Microbiota decussata

When I decide what to graft onto Thuja I first look at our MPL (Master Plant List) to see what my choices are. I don't graft any Thuja onto Thuja, as they all can be propagated adequately by cuttings. But I have to remember that there are also other genera that are compatible with 'Smaragd' such as Microbiota decussata. This conifer from Siberia is related to Juniperus and was first discovered in 1921. A nice specimen ( or specimens) can be found at the Rhododendron Species Garden in Washington state (shown above), and I suspect they are on their own roots. Microbiota does root easily but they do poorly in container culture and it's probably due to overwatering or the excessive summer heat in a black plastic pot. With the 'Smaragd' roots however, Microbiota is quite easy to grow.

Cupressus cashmeriana at Buchholz Nursery

Kew Gardens Conservatory

Another surprise is how compatible Cupressus cashmeriana is with 'Smaragd'. I can't explain why, but early in my career I learned that the two make a perfect graft union, whereas the old Thuja occidentalis 'Pyramidalis' does not. It seems odd that the “Kashmir cypress” is cultivar specific with Thuja, because it really shouldn't make any difference. 'Pyramidalis' is not even in the trade anymore, and good riddance since it is inferior to 'Smaragd' (AKA 'Emerald Green'), but if I had a few pots I would graft cashmeriana onto 'Pyramidalis' to prove to you the difference in graft unions. Always considered tender, a large specimen of C. cashmeriana can be found in the Kew Gardens conservatory. Hillier in Manual of Trees and Shrubs (2014) mentions that it grows outside in their arboretum in southern England and was 10m tall at 30 years old. The Manual points out that the foliage is a “conspicuous blue-grey, in flattened sprays,” and so it is the same clone that I grow. Hillier continues, “Some recent introductions have green foliage and appear hardier.” I was surprised that C. cashmeriana grew outdoors at the JC Raulston Arboretum in North Carolina, and it survived a low of 7 degrees F a few winters ago. I should have studied it more closely for foliage color, as I now wonder if they grow the green form which is supposedly more hardy.*

Cupressus cashmeriana at the JC Raulston Arboretum

*I asked Tim Alderton, Research Technician at the Raulston. He replied:

I remember your visit. The specimen you saw is no longer with us. It froze out the following winter when we reached the lower single digits. It appeared to be the blue-grey form to me, but we had no others to compare it to. The parent of that plant came from cutting that we received from Juniper Level Botanic Garden in 2002. The one you saw was grown from a cutting in 2008. When they grow, they grow very quickly into a sizable plant as it was over 10' tall when it died four years later.

Tony Avent maybe able to tell you where he received his start years ago.

Sorry that I can't be of more help,


Sciadopitys verticillata 'Gold Rush'

Sciadopitys verticillata 'Green Star'

Sciadopitys verticillata 'Mr. Happy'

We had a handful of Sciadopitys that were seedling grown, and last year about half of them were of graftable size at six years of age, and the rest of them this year at seven years. Unlike with our rooted cuttings Sciadopitys with the bud rot mentioned earlier, the grafted plants never get the problem. Out of twenty or so cultivars of “Umbrella pine” that we have I choose to produce just two now: 'Gold Rush' and 'Green Star'. Customers always want to buy the few 'Mr. Happy' that they see in the nursery, but I am discontinuing its production because it is not reliable. I've come to that conclusion after twenty years of messing with it. At its best 'Mr. Happy' is spectacular, but I have also experienced some that have reverted to mostly green. And even worse, some have become predominantly yellow and those can burn. Perfect are the half and halfs with green and yellow, and if the majority of ours grew that way then I would continue to propagate it. Anyway the reliable 'Gold Rush' and 'Green Star' are in high demand and I can sell out without any problem. Oops! – actually there is a problem, for our record snow broke some branches on specimens that sold on our first day of availability, and we were just waiting to ship this spring. So we'll see what they look like when the truck is actually here.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides

Larix gmelini 'Tharandt Dwarf'

Ginkgo biloba

Geeze – propagating: There is never a guarantee that one's effort will be rewarded with success. I've whined in previous blogs that I experience gut-wrenching insecurity throughout the entire process, and in spite of thirty seven years of relative success, I still fret about the current crops. I obtain some relief, however, when I walk through the deciduous conifers grafted six weeks ago in GH18B. The Metasequoias and Larix scions are swelling – as they do every year at this time – and before long we'll have to sell or pot up the damn things so they don't over-crowd with new growth and rot. Likewise the Ginkgo scions look active, and I'm reminded that we also grafted them at about the same time. The deciduous conifers – and that would include Ginkgo – are easy and reliable to propagate, and our success with them helps to fund the trickier stuff that we do...

Stewartia monadelpha 'Pendula' 

...for example, a long-time customer (15 years) showed up the other day and wondered about the story with our Stewartia monadelpha 'Pendula', about why they were never on our specimen availability. Groan – I explained how hard they were to propagate and that rootstocks cost a fortune and that 10% grafting success was the best that we ever achieved blah blah blah...and that if I ever did sell them it would be a few years later when they were worth many hundreds of dollars...and that these were likely the very first in America – from Japan – and that my Japanese wife – beautiful at age 25 – sweet-talked the old Japanese nurseryman into sending me a start when he never intended to do so at the beginning of our visit. Our long-time (male) customer said, “But I noticed that two were flagged for sale.” Ohhh...he was right! Out of ten plants I did flag two – though I didn't really want to – for a Seattle customer. Ah – I explained to him – ah ah, well actually she's better looking than you. There, there you have the truth.

Pinus aristata 'Lemon Frost'
Pinus bungeana 'Silver Ghost'
The page above is one out of about 15 which gives you an example of what we graft and in what numbers. With some we would have done more if scions were more plentiful, such as Pinus aristata 'Lemon Frost' and Pinus bungeana 'Silver Ghost'. I got my start of 'Lemon Frost' from Don at Porterhowse Farms about eight years ago and I didn't want to abuse it by cutting too much. It is a slow-growing bristlecone with a light dusting of gold on the needle tips, but certainly not a very profitable pine to grow. One problem is that there's not a good rootstock to use for P. aristata – none of them are really compatible unless you could find P. balfouriana or P. longaeva seedlings which I've never seen offered for sale. We have used P. strobiformis in the past, and then this year P. strobus. Most of the 18 grafts will take, but then the scions will just sit there on their nurse stock, with only 4 or 5 actually taking off to produce healthy growth.

Healthy Pinus bungeana cultivar on left and unhealthy on right

The Pinus bungeana 'Silver Ghost' is another story, where I used to do a couple of hundred each year, but in the past few years I have cashed out on my older stock trees, so all I could do was scrape up 32 scions from one tree left in the Conifer Field. As with the 'Lemon Frost', 'Silver Ghost' – and all P. bungeana cultivars – also do not have a perfect rootstock. Over the years I would guess that only 60% of the grafts that take will ever make it to the 6-7 or 8-year size. Some will die at the one-gallon pot size, and some others will “live” but be perpetually off color. After a couple of years of watching these struggle I'll finally issue the edict for their removal. For those that stay green and healthy there is a ready market, if the foot of snow doesn't smash the brittle branches before harvest.

These examples illustrate why I worry so much, why success is not a given. And also why I am not wealthy in the nursery business. Sometimes people interpret that for me to mean that I put up with my chosen livelihood because I love plants, and have a passion for what I do. Probably not as much as you think. There comes a point where financial security sounds a lot better than watching pines struggle.

Yesterday I walked around the neighbor's bankrupt nursery. I was uninvited but no one was around. It was a chilling experience to see hoop after hoop full of distressed plants with a healthy crop of liverwort covering the tops of every pot. Euonymus, Prunus, Berberis, Hibiscus etc. – all “cheap” plants relatively easy to produce. When times were good they made more money than I did; when times got bad they went under. Maybe my life's course wasn't such a bad decision.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for such great blog. Love your plants and style