To Plant or Not to Plant?: The Genius, the Genus, the Graft
The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the garden is calling you to plant your annuals…inevitably just before that last freak frost comes through… Whether you’re a green thumb, or just cursing the pollen count, now is the time to turn your thoughts to all things flora.
April is, in fact “National Lawn Awareness Month,” so you’re doing your civic duty if you’re dusting off the old mowing, aerating, fertilizing, and edging devices. But since the push for more organic produce has hit the social consciousness, for today’s blog we’re looking past the lawn to a specific gardening innovation that has kept our lives fragrant and flavorful.
Unsurprisingly, since vegetables, fruits, and grains have been crucial to the survival of the species for thousands of years, humans have been tinkering with plants ever since we moved past “gathering” and into “farming.” And one of the most useful techniques that we developed was the ability to graft two plants together so that we could get the benefits of both. Grafted wild olives are mentioned in the Bible (Romans 11:17), grafted fruit plants are described in the 2,000 year-old Chinese treatise Qimin Yaoshu (Essential Skills for the Common People), and similar references are found in numerous Latin, Greek, and Arabic manuscripts from roughly 200bce.
Bonus Factoid: in the Middle Ages the careful cultivation of plants and animals was called “husbandry.” We derive the modern term “husband” from this, not because women are like plants/animals, but because the farmer/husband’s loving (and often back-breaking) investment in those relationships ensured his long-term survival.
Grafting techniques were so revolutionary (and useful), that a huge percentile of the modern plants (including grapes, apples, avocados, mangoes, nuts, and roses) that you buy today are actually grafted.
Why is that cool? Hold on to your gardening gloves, and find out…
First of all, grafting works because many plants are capable of growing in and around foreign materials. If the material is metal, the results are often comical:
But if a plant wraps around another plant…sometimes they merge. (As in this naturally-occurring “husband and wife” graft.)
Yet, because farmers started grafting a few thousand years before anyone understood genes, DNA, or plant families, they pretty much figured things out by trial and error.
Bonus Factoid: it was this kind of work with plants that actually led to the theorization of genetics. Scientists needed to explain why some (apparently similar) plants wouldn’t graft or cross-pollinate, while other (seemingly very different) plants would.
In practice, grafting offered farmers several key advantages:
- Speed: If grown from a seed, most fruit trees naturally take 5-9 years before they start producing fruit; but a mature branch grafted onto juvenile rootstock can produce fruit in just 2 years.
- Health: Some plants have roots that are very sensitive to certain soils or vulnerable to ground-dwelling insects. But if you can graft that plant onto another plant with hardier roots—Boom. Instant longevity. Similar grafts can improve pollination or add sturdiness, and repair grafts can even be made onto plants that have been damaged by animals or weather.
- Consistency & Variety: If you love a particular apple, you can graft branches from your favorite tree onto lots of other apple trunks to ensure that you get exactly the same flavor. Or, if a different flavor comes into fashion, you can graft something new onto your already sturdy apple trunks. Or, if you’re really ambitious, you can graft multiple plants onto the same stem…resulting in individual trees that can produce dozens of kinds of fruit, or numerous types of flowers.
- Miniaturization: If a large tree is grafted onto the trunk of a smaller tree, the result is a dainty version of the original—suitable for planting in front of your house without wrecking the foundations, or for ensuring that you can reach all of the cherries on your tree without a huge ladder.
Creativity: Grafting has always appealed to the weird side of the human brain—and so people have been manufacturing amusing graft structures for hundreds of years. Because…Why not? In 1947, Swedish farmer Axel Erlandson started charging admission to his “Tree Circus” full of grafting oddities:
But more modern artistic ambitions, have produced results that are even more spectacular:
For most of us, tree sculptures in the backyard are going to be more of an abstract amusement than a years-in-process reality, but if you want to bring a bit of that amazement into your own life, the next time you wander past a tree or a flowering bush, take a look and see if you can spot a tell-tale graft.
And if you want to astonish your children, impress your neighbors, and jazz up the kitchen…consider supplementing your urban garden with a potted Pomato. It produces tomatoes all summer, and, in the fall, you pull up the roots to get potatoes!
Or if you have a bit more space, consider a multiple-graft fruit tree. The different fruit varieties help the tree to self-pollinate, and you’ll get multiple flavors that produce in sequence. To be fair…you probably won’t get the 250 varieties of apple achieved by horticulturalist Paul Barnett, but you can find four-graft apple trees in many local nurseries.
And if all else fails, a graft is always good for a punchline. What happened when Chuck Norris taught some boy scouts how to tie knots?