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Garden doctor grafts plants with surgical precision

January 5, 2011 |  7:00 am

Community Gardens dispatch No. 14: The Learning Garden, Venice

Grafting -- the joining of two plants to make a single new one -- is a complicated procedure, a mixture of surgery and carpentry for the gardener attempting the procedure. The nutrition-gathering roots of one plant play host to the scion, usually a year-old stem containing buds that's attached on top. When it's done right, the results can be downright inspirational, as David King learned in the 1980s, when he visited the former Montecito mansion of chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr.

The architect positioned the house around two large oaks, but in the 1940s, one of the trees began to die, said King, who was studying plant propagation at the time. "He planted two young oaks on either side of the dying oak, and after about 10 years, he grafted them onto it," King said. "And more than 30 years later, it was still alive. I get goose bumps to this day -- what skill."

This month, King will start cutting back the trees and vines at the Learning Garden at Venice High School, gathering scions and cuttings for his classes in plant propagation. He has some rootstock already prepped in the greenhouse and more on order from Raintree Nursery in Washington state.

Grafting-nodesPreparations call for the sharpening of knives, the cleaning of pruners and inspection of the Thompson seedless grapevines blanketing a rebar trellis in the Venice garden. Some of those vines soon will be pruned away in King's UCLA Extension class. Older cane will be cut into four-node-long sections, heavily deleafed and planted in cactus mix -- two nodes in the soil, two nodes out. Grapevines are satisfyingly easy to propagate as long as the cuttings are kept moist by regular misting for the first few months, until new leaves appear.

"Water loss is the big enemy when a plant has no roots," he says.

Grafting cuts vary: simple splice, saddle graft, cleft and wedge, whip and tongue. The key to successful grafting is making an even cut on both sections of plant, King says. It's possible to do this with just a box cutter, rubber bands and a plastic bag, but special grafting wax and Parafilm (a type of medical tape that stretches, seals to itself and eventually withers away) help to achieve a tight fit. Keep reading for more on King, his garden and upcoming classes open to the public ...

King has an assortment of grafting knives as well as a $70 A.M. Leonard grafting tool that make identical cuts in the rootstock and the scion, reducing the chance for error. Within a couple of weeks, it will be obvious if the graft has taken; new leaves should emerge from the scion by May or June. If the graft fails, at least the rootstock can be used again.

In the Learning Garden greenhouse, King set his rootstock selections in small pots on heat mats, because warm ground aids in root development. But even that doesn't make grafting a fast process. How to tell if the plant is thriving? He gently wiggles a scraggly stalk in its container. If the rootstock fails, the plant will wither and come out of the container easily. But if you feel resistance as you wiggle? "Then it is still alive," he says.

Upcoming classes: The Learning Garden is holding a workshop on saving vegetable seeds. The class runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 29 and includes lunch. The cost is $40 if you register online before Jan. 22, $50 at the door.

The garden also holds a monthly class titled "What to Do and When to Do It, Growing Food in Southern California." Each class runs from 9 a.m. to noon and costs $25 at the door; the next dates are Feb. 5 and March 5. No reservations are required.

A plant propagation class that will cover grafting will be held at a yet-to-be-determined date in February.

-- Jeff Spurrier

Dispatches from community gardens are posted on Wednesdays. Bookmark the blog and check back for future installments.

King and his grapevines.

King's dog, Tree.

Photos: Ann Summa


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