Thursday, 18 April 2019

Blooming weeds!

It is over a year since my last post and l'Orto di Casa Cecconi has a new home, in the Netherlands. A rather beautiful, large patch of land adjacent to a nature reserve and lake, it came with a big shed, more of a house really... The space is divided in two parts: a mature, ornamental garden with pond (siertuin in Dutch), and a vegetable patch (moestuin in Dutch) with sizeable glasshouse.

I am meeting new people and observing new methods of gardening and still discovering all the marvellous plants, meant or not meant to be there... which leads me to today's post.

People here don't seem so obsessed about weeds, road verges are quite colourful, and this is the time of dandelions and escaped rapeseed, so it's gold everywhere! However, having a walk on the plot the other day, someone saw a beautiful dandelion plant on my plot and pointed out that an allotment site is no place for such a prolific weed.

That really threw me. It's 2019: the insect population is collapsing, climate change is already affecting our gardens (it is so dry even here where water covers 18% of the land) and people really think that bare ground is better than leaving weeds in, and that it is a good idea to exterminate every wildflower in sight? Apparently yes, habits die hard, 'supremacist' horticultural beliefs as well (as in: man is superior to the rest of nature and must keep in control of it).

Have we ever managed to exterminate weeds by our actions? Luckily not. So why do we keep making up mostly pointless work for ourselves but trying to keep them at bay, would it not be better to learn how to live with (at least some of) them?

Dandelions are really pretty flowers, objectively speaking, and not a noxious weed by the definition:
A noxious weed, harmful weed or injurious weed is a weed that has been designated by an agricultural authority as one that is injurious to agricultural or horticultural crops, natural habitats or ecosystems, or humans or livestock
they are easily pulled out and have no spreading rhizomes, they do not overwhelm plants in the way bindweed does. Like all plants with a long tap root, they are effective at pulling up nutrients from the lower layers of the soil, and bringing them up to the surface... so good for the compost heap!

Wild bee

Do I have to say that pollinators love them? I have proof: there is a wild bee (the pollinators that are worst off at the moment) and an hoverfly - do you know their larvae decimate aphids? Definitely friends to nurture on a plot. Dandelions emerge rather early in the spring, at the same time as the first bees, and can therefore be a lifesaver at a time when little else may be available for them to eat.

I read that goldfinches and house sparrows do eat the seeds of dandelion, but who knows how many other insects and organisms rely on Taraxacum in their foodchain? Surely there are beetles and nobody ever thinks of the soil organisms that keep our soil healthy, for which root exudates are an essential source of nutrition.

Sadly, I could not find a handy list of the Taraxacum foodchain.

But I am a believer of the fact that we have to start thinking of 'weeds' in the context of the ecosystem they support, not just as our personal enemies. For example, over the years I have heard people lament the absence of butteflies, but not one of them has even hesitated when pulling out nettles, the main food source for at least two of the most favourite butterflies' caterpillars: red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) and peacock (Aglais io)! No caterpillars = no butterflies, right?

Back to the humble dandelion, another reason why it does not make sense to say it is a plant that does not belong in an allotment is that all parts of the plant are edible, palatable even, and in fact I wrote a post about that a few years ago

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

about my experiments with baking pie with the leaves, as a substitute for chicory catalogna. A couple of years ago I also had a go at deep-fried flowerheads in a batter: such a dense, umami taste I was not expecting! I even tried the roots, boiled as you would radici amare di Soncino - those were a bit fiddly to peel but I enjoyed the bitter taste with a drizzle of olive oil and white wine vinegar.

It is real, I'm not the only crazy person that eats dandelions, there are cultivars, someone bred them! For example Aster Lane Edibles.

Blooming weeds indeed!

Monday, 2 April 2018

Bench grafting

While I did do some field grafting and budding at Wisley, I had never done any bench grafting. The opportunity to practise, however has come now, as I am studying to complete my RHS level 3 Diploma in the Principles and Practices of Horticulture, and grafting is an examinable skill.

Grafting is mainly done at the earliest time of spring, just before bud break, and in the late summer, when new wood has had time to ripen stiff enough.

In order to prepare us for the July test of budding and side veneer grafting, we got some training in whip and tongue, which is based on the same basic cut.

The most important requirement for grafting is a sharp knife, without which you have no control of the cut. To sharpen the knife you need a water or oil stone. I have an Arkansas oil stone that is just wide enough. After oiling the stone, you have to place the blade whole on the stone, finding the original sharpening angle of the bevel. You only sharpen the bevelled side of the blade, and you have to get the angle right, or you won't get it sharp.

Finding the sharpening angle
on the bevelled side

Once you settle on the right angle, place the other hand on the tip of the blade and pull towards you, with a steady motion. Then you start again,  repeating for five/six times. It has to be shave-proof!
To finish off, remove the burr on the other side of the blade, by placing it flat on the stone and using gentle round motions.

Once you have a sharp knife, you need to hold your wood safely. I have previously nipped my fingertips and therefore find it easier to wear preventative plasters (namely on the thumb of the knife hand), but we were taught a foolproof way to hold the wood to avoid that.

Hold the wood close to where you are going to make the cut, palm down.

Then grab the blade quite close, to wield control, and you are ready to go.

The basic grafting cut is a sloping cut that leaves you with a flat surface, some 2.5 to 3 cm, across the wood. To achieve that, you have to slide the whole blade, bottom to tip. You start by placing the bottom of the blade on the top side of the wood that you are holding, close to your hand, at some 30 degrees angle, then you pull it towards you, sliding it in the wood towards the bottom and all the way to the tip, like below.

You start with the scion wood (the 'stick' of wood that you have chosen for a specific cultivar of plant that you want to grow - taste, appearance, whatever that is for) and need a clean cut: as flat a surface as you can muster, as it will need to adhere perfectly to the matching cut you are going to make in the rootstock (which you have chosen for the qualities of the roots i.e. disease resistance, dwarfing stock etc). You can tell if the cut is flat when you place it against the blade of the knife.

A flat enough cut

I did practice a few cuts on Cornus stems

Once you are confident on your cut, you can decide to go for it. I have described the procedure for whip and tongue grafting before, so I won't repeat it, but there were a couple of different things in bench grafting, which I noticed.

First, the scion stick is longer, 15-20 cm with at least five buds: you don't risk knocking it off that much at a desk as you do when standing over grafts made in the field. And, because I read in my propagation books that the healing process starts in the scion wood rather than the rootstock, it makes sense to have more wood = more stored energy available.

The other difference is in the tying of the graft union. We used a simple elastic band instead of grafting tape, and we started at the top of the graft going downwards, which is really easy. Again, it makes sense - in the field, you are standing over the graft and if you start at the top, the scion stick is in the way and you keep knocking into it, but here... super easy!

Test whip and tongue on willow
The result of my efforts: 2 Spartan apples
on M9 stock

I went home to pot my new apples up!
The next step, grafting on the plot where 14 rootstock plants await...