Hard 'graft' produces a little magic...

Winter months in the propagation glasshouses at Wisley can seem glum. A glance at the job list reveals numerous tasks that lack the plant factor we love...

Here I am grafting CornusNamely, pressure washing the glasshouses; pot washing; tidying the store room; checking and writing risk assessments. All essential work to maintain hygienic conditions, good light levels and a safe working environment for the coming year, but we happy proppers can’t be blamed for craving the buzz that comes from bringing plants to life. Luckily with winter comes a most enjoyable and challenging job in the propagation calendar: grafting.

There is something magical about being able to fuse plants together: a rootstock and scion material (a cutting from the plant you want to propagate). The science behind it is ultimately more interesting than the trick itself; the amazing meristems of the cambium layer of either plant dividing together and merging as one to create a new specimen.

Grafting two stems with an elastic band proves tricky sometimes...This awestruck attitude to nature also leaves room for pondering on the human element of the union. This does not have to be a prolonged rumination on the history of grafting from Ancient China to present day; a simple “I did that!” will suffice. Although fun and interesting, the work must be carried out and a thousand yard stare before each attempt is frowned upon.

A steady hand and patience can produce extremely rewarding results. Grafting at RHS Garden Wisley is very useful if a choice tree or shrub is to be perpetuated but is hard to grow from cuttings.

Beneficial characteristics such as disease resistance, vigour and habit can also be provided to the top growth if an appropriate rootstock is used. Our rootstocks arrived in the autumn and have been healed into our raised sand-bed to keep the roots moist and protected until needed. This year we will be grafting various cherry trees, pines and Euonymus for the garden teams.

Grafts on a heat lineNow in January we are fit to burst with excitement as we will soon collect the scion material from trees in the garden using the longest pair of loppers we can find; imagine amateur puppeteers practicing on a prototype giraffe puppet and you won’t be far off the mark. We look for strong, straight cuttings, which are invariably towards the top of the tree. The cuttings are stored in the fridge to give us some time to practice our technique on numerous stems of Cornus and Salix until we feel confident to apply these skills to the requested plants. We usually perform this task once a year so a little practice beforehand is always a good idea. At Wisley we prefer the ‘side-veneer’ or ‘spliced graft’ method; other grafting techniques are also highly effective.

Certain parts of the procedure bring on the giggles, one of which is securing the cut rootstock and scion together with an elastic band, which can ping off at the faces of colleagues trying to master the same painfully fiddly task. Despite these distractions, we manage to enjoy ourselves and achieve a professional result, which can then be planted out in the gardens for many years of enjoyment.

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