Get some time on your boots

Make sure your people know there is no substitute for actual field work.

Every year when the fall colors start to peak around the nursery and landscape, I can’t help but reflect on the year’s growing season and the future of the pending harvest. The reflections teeter between the awesome industry we work in and the impactful difference we make in the world, and the memories of having the great opportunity to grow up in a nursery family. My passion was born in a shanty end of a greenhouse that turned into my grandfather’s grafting room. Day after day, he and my uncles would stoke the small wood stove as the November and December rains pounded the outside of the plastic. Half and Half tobacco smoke from my grandfather’s pipe competed with the aroma of the spruce and pine pitch shavings falling on the floor as the grafters sat at their benches like surgeons, carefully placing the scions on the sides of their conifer seedlings. One by one, rootstock by rootstock, they knew the work had to be done. Sure as Thanksgiving and Christmas, this arduous task was performed with exact precision and placement. These were fun and impactful times as a youth. They imprinted on me the value of hard work, timing, future and most importantly, the value of working in a production nursery.

After college, I remember coming to the nursery and being so jealous of how the growers knew so much about the plants and how they remembered all the names in both Latin and common. How I hungered to be that knowledgeable. To be able to identify bareroot trees in the cooler racks just by their roots! Luckily, I had good mentors, nurserymen and teachers, some of which I still work with today. Now I confess, I have many days behind a computer or on a Teams meeting, more than I care to admit. But I still make it a point to speak to our new hires or our student interns and stress the importance of the same hard work and careful timing our products require to be successful. “Get some time on your boots” is one of my favorite mantras for those who ask what it takes to work at a full-scale production nursery. There is no substitute for being in the fields, container yards or greenhouses.

The fall time is no different. Since we in the west have the luxury of harvesting all winter (even though wet), my thoughts turn to labor management and getting the harvest and grafting season off to a good start. This means our teams are selectively aggressive with items to dig to be sure our success translates to the customers in the spring. Trees, specifically, need enough cooling degree days to achieve proper dormancy and, even then, might not totally “shut down” due to our moderate climate. One way we mitigate this is through starch testing our trees. Taking a small root sample and slicing it down to the size of a thin round dime allows us to place that root under a microscope with a drop of iodine and see if the starches are collected close in a circle pattern. Trees can, oftentimes, fool you by cloaking themselves in colorful leaves. But deep inside, they are truly “asleep,” which allows us to harvest on our time and with our labor availabilities. On the flip side, some trees are notorious for early color and leaf drop. However, upon closer inspection, the starches are still active and spread out, meaning the tree is still in the dormancy process and is subject to poor translatability and ultimately, livability. Putting trees that are not dormmate into cold storage for a prolonged duration subjects them to more disease and cambium breakdown. Over the years, we have tracked and modified this integral part of our early-season harvest. I have often wondered if this process could be used by other growers, such as caliper field growers, to mitigate transplant or winter losses.

We have a saying around the nursery that “growing plants is the art of a thousand details.” Every tree cultivar, for example, has its own devil from propagation to production, some of which have been handed down from generation to generation or manager to manager. Those lessons need to be shared as a source of knowledge; they were badges earned at one point from someone. Sometimes through trial and error, sometimes through dumb luck. Keeping good records is a pain and takes patience and practice. Taking the time every day to document in your working calendar or in your notebook makes the tasks of whatever you are doing much better in the subsequent years. I encourage our leaders and growers to keep detailed records of those thousand details. Different than an SOP, because every year is different, and nothing is “standard procedure” when dealing with plants. But the passing of knowledge and trends to either new growers, customers and/or our sales staff can really come in handy. Graft timing, fall pruning, starch test results, dig dates, grade dates and storage dates all play a key role in making sure all the hard work we have put into our plants gets to be shared with our customers.

If you were to have told me all those times sitting in that smoky graft house that I would be fortunate enough to make a career propagating, planting, growing and harvesting plants in those same Oregon December rains of my youth, I’m not sure I would have believed it. All these years later I hope I can pass on some of the thousand details that my mentors passed on to me. There is still much to learn and everyday offers an opportunity to reaffirm our love for this industry and the plants we grow…dedicated to Leonard Bizon, my first nursery mentor and the best grafter I have ever known…

November 2022
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