Thursday, February 24, 2011

I was so excited today to receive a box full of leafless sticks by mail. The exciting thing about those sticks is that each one of them can – will, I hope – grow into a whole new plant from whose branches would eventually hang luscious apples and grapes.

And how do I know the fruits will be luscious? Because last autumn I was at an experimental orchard photographing fruits for a new book I’m writing. Of course, I also tasted them, and that’s why Chestnut Crab, Honeygold, Mollie’s Delicious, and King of the Pippins will be joining the two dozen or so other varieties of apples already here. Cayuga White, Bertille Seyve 2758, Steuben, Lakemont, Wapanuka, Himrod, Romulus, and Venus will be joining my grapes.

It is “totipotence” – of the plants, not me – that allows unlocking the potential treasures within today’s mailed sticks. Within a plant, every cell except for reproductive cells has the potential to become a root, a shoot, a flower, a thorn, a fruit, any other part of a plant. For that matter, the same is true for humans and other animals. All that’s needed are the right conditions to get the various parts to grow – and there’s the rub.

A little art and science puts totipotence to work. In the case of the apples, I’ll graft those stems onto my existing trees or onto small rootstocks. Existing trees or rootstocks provide nothing more than roots to nourish shoots that will eventually sprout from the sticks. The plant beyond the graft remains genetically that of whatever variety is grafted upon the rootstock. Grape sticks will get plunged into the ground where they will grow their own roots, shoots, and everything else. Apples aren’t so amenable to growing their own roots.

Nothing is happening yet. Warmth will awaken those sticks. For now, they’re being kept cool and dormant.

I should be tasting the first fruits of my labors in 3 years.
Although I have gardened for decades, I’m a relative newbie to greenhouse gardening. Sure, I dabbled in various greenhouses over the years but I’ve only experienced the intimate vagaries of my own greenhouse for the last 10 years. It took all this time for it to finally dawn on me that Murphy’s Law – “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” – also applies in the greenhouse. In retrospect, why wouldn’t it?

I had my brush with the law one evening a couple of weeks ago when I went to pick some lettuce for a salad. Methinks, “Hmmm, quite nippy in here.” But then, except from when sunlight is beaming through the plastic covering, it’s always nippy in there in winter. Salad greens, kale, chard, and celery thrive in those cool temperatures. (The in-ground figs stay dormant and leafless.)

Still, temperatures felt nippier than normal so I checked the thermometer to confirm and, yes, it was getting down to the high 20s. I then checked the propane heater, which ignored me as I twisted the dial on the thermostat clockwise.

I propose an amendment to Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong -- at the worst possible time!” Temperatures the night before had plummeted below zero. No wonder a water line had burst that morning. I assumed that frigid temperatures had made only that corner of the greenhouse too cold. Fortunately, after a lot of nail biting, the gas man and I determined that the pilot light had blown out in the heater. Most plants survived the cold.

One event does not a Law make. Thinking back to last year, I remembered a more serious freeze in the greenhouse. One day everything looked verdant; the next day mush. (The gas company had forgotten to re-fill the propane tank.) After that event, I rigged up a backup electric heater, just in case temperatures dropped below freezing.

Perhaps yet another Murphy’s Law Amendment is needed. On the night of the most recent freeze, the electric heater was, of course, hooked up. Except it wasn’t poised for warmth. The thermostat was directing it to wake up, but I had forgotten to flip the heater’s “on-off” switch to “on.”

Live and learn: The sun is now setting, the mercury is now plummeting, and high winds could, I assume, blow out the pilot light again tonight. When I go out to pick some lettuce, celery, and parsley, I will: Check propane heater, check electric heater, check that the water line is off. And remember to latch the door closed on my way out -- really!


  1. New book? How exciting! I can't wait. Can you give your loyal readers an idea of what to expect?

  2. Gee, thanks for your enthusiasm. The new book will be about growing fruit at home, naturally. I'll announce its debut right here on these "pages."

  3. I wasn't sure how to go about getting clippings and starts for the purpose of grafting. Any suggestions? Thanks.

  4. I get get "clippings," better known as scions, from friend's trees and from members of organizations to which I belong, such as California Rare Fruit Growers ( and North American Fruit Explorers ( Some organizations or nurseries sell scions.

  5. Very excited to find your blog. Very humorous post on the greenhouse. I have spent many years in "communal" greenhouses so it all rings true! Catching lettuce-munching mice is another test for the greenhouse gardener. I tried every kind of trap I could find, only to have the poor soul drown himself in the water bucket.

  6. I love that work 'totipotence'. I am marking that one down.

  7. This post makes me want some blueberries :P