Rick Shory

Offering a little something you might not otherwise have

veg frame showing visualized lines


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One-square-meter vegetation sampling frame, ultralight

This is an update of instructions originally published March 2001.

First, let’s look at what this is for, so the steps will make sense.

A standard protocol in some vegetation surveys is “percent cover” in a one-meter area. You are supposed to visually estimate the percent of plant species or other things. This vegetation frame we are going to build is to help with that.

veg frame showing visualized lines

What this veg frame is for

The four sides (or “legs”) of the frame are marked in 1/10 meter (10 cm) increments. This makes it easy for you to mentally grid up the ground inside the one meter square. These are the pink dashed lines in the picture above. Each small square is 1% of the full meter square.

In this example you might estimate the tree trunk as about 25% (purple solid line), or a little less. The exact way you do this would depend on your study protocol, but this post is about the equipment.

You have to carry the frame around in the field, so it is as light weight as possible. Each leg is shock-corded in pieces, like the tent poles of a dome tent. This lets you fold the frame up small for easy packing. Also, as shown here, if there is some obstruction, you can just fold part of a leg out of the way.

In a day’s work, you typically take the frame apart and put it back together a lot. So the leg ends stick together with Velcro. You can just fish the legs through the brush, touch the ends together, and they stick. One end of each leg is visually distinct from the other, so you can see at a glance which ends will connect. You don’t have to fuss with trying them all different ways.


The core of the design is the fiberglass tent pole sections. You can buy them from:

Tentpole Technologies (“TT”)

Explain that you want sections that will be one meter long, and will fold up in thirds. If TT can look up previous orders from me (rickshory.com) you can order the same thing.

If you’re really pinched for cash, ask if they will sell you the raw materials, the fiberglass pole sections and the shock cord. You can save some money by putting in the labor to assemble them yourself.

One tent pole section, showing black and white ends

One “leg”

TT typically makes the poles with one white end, and the rest black. This is all to the good. It makes the two ends visually distinct. If you are assembling them yourself, take note of how they will finally fold up, so as to be most compact.

In order to apply the colored bands, mark the poles at 10 cm intervals. It is rather tedious to make the marks one at a time, each successively 10 cm from the last. Below is an easier technique.

Lay out a strip of tape, such as blue painter’s tape (as shown below), or masking tape. Use tape at least two inches wide, or improvise from narrower strips laid parallel. Two inches will give you enough width to arrange all four poles side by side.

jig, made of a board, to align poles for marking

Jig for marking poles

If you plan to do this a again, you can make a jig by applying the tape to a 4-foot-long board, as shown. Then you can put this arrangement away between uses. If you are only going to do this once, you can put the tape directly on a table and discard the tape when done.

lines on tape, 10 cm apart

Marks on tape

Now, you only need a short ruler to lay out marks on the tape at 10 cm intervals. (The tape saves marking up your table.)

the ends of the 4 poles, visually aligned on the tape

Pole ends aligned

When you line up your poles, the ends may not align exactly. However, having the whole meter length at once lets you get them as even as possible. The ends may go part of a centimeter beyond the furthest marks, but this is OK. It’s well within tolerance.

sharpie pen, marking all 4 poles at once

Mark all 4 poles at once

Now, you can mark all four poles at once. Where marks fall on the white and silver sections, you only need a tiny dot to find the location later.

glint mark on black part of pole

Only a glint shows on black

However, on the black sections, the mark will only appear as a faint glint of a slightly different color quality (this is ink from a black Sharpie pen). Although you may have to hunt a bit for these marks, this will still be quicker than, say, sticking temporary bits of tape to mark the places.

Below is an example of a pole after the color bands are on.

example pole showing color bands

Color banded pole

I use two easily distinguishable colors, the “main” color (red here) and a “tip” color (violet in this example). The widths of the bands help visualize percent cover, but the colors themselves help keep you from losing the poles in the woods.

The main color is most important because there’s more of it. I use a color that will stand out in the environment. In leafy green vegetation, a hot color like red, orange, or yellow would be good. However, in a red desert, I might use violet for the main color instead. You may not realized how easy it is to lose equipment like this until you are actually out in the field.

rolls of vinyl electrical tape

Vinyl electrical tape

The material to make the color bands is vinyl electrical tape. Various colors are available at most hardware stores. Bright fluorescent “DayGlo®” tape would be better, but I have never found it in a field-durable form. There is a product called “gaffer’s tape” in fluorescent colors, but this is much like masking tape, and would not last long in field work.

I put the tip colors on first, to avoid mixups. You want the two ends of each pole readily distinguishable from each other, but all four poles the same. It’s easy to get confused if you start applying the color bands at random.

In all the banding, wrap the tape onto the pole tightly enough that it stretches. There are a few details that will increase field durability.

tape at the start of a wrap is angled

Tape tip angled

At the start and end of each wrap, you overlap the tape somewhat. If you start with the tape tip torn at an angle (as shown), the overlap will not bulge out so much, and will abrade less. (This example wrap will go up to the next mark on the silver section, above and to the right.)

tape being torn to terminate a section of wrap

Tear tape at the end of a wrap

At the end of the wrap, if you tear the tape at an angle, this end also will be more neat.

tape tearing at an angle, ready for the next wrap

Tape breaks at an angle

The tape will then naturally break leaving an angled tear, ready to start the next wrap.

For pole junctions that will not need to pull apart, you can just continue the tape up or down from fiberglass pole sections to aluminum ferrule. However, at junctions that do need to pull apart, make two tape wraps, one on each side of the junction.

pole junction pulled apart, showing separate tape wraps on each side

Don’t tape across pull-apart junctions


If you want to add a label, now is the time, before putting on the Velcro ends. In this example, I show my web domain. You may want to put a barcode for inventory, or some contact information so lost equipment can be returned if found.

example of a label on a pole

Example label

You want your label to still be readable, even after years out in the weather. Otherwise, it’s not worth taking the trouble. In field conditions, a label just stuck on would soon be damaged or gone, from moisture, abrasion and dirt.

labels packing slip

Weatherproof labels

A paper label would quickly degrade. I use these weatherproof labels, item number OL1825LP, from onlinelabels.com. Note that these are very small labels. You do not have much room on a slim tent pole.

tubing being cut

Shrink tubing

Even these tough labels would break down or wear off if left exposed. I cover the labels with transparent “heat shrink tubing”, often used in electronics to insulate wires. The size is 0.375″ (9.53mm) diameter. It is available from DigiKey, part number A038C-4-ND. A piece 2.4″ long is good for covering each label.

tube sleeved over label

Tubing in place

Apply a label and slide the shrink tubing over it.

tubing above a candle flame, shrinking into place

Heat shrinking

Heat the tubing to shrink it in place. Using a candle, as shown here, you can “roll” the pole as you gradually feed it past the flame. Start from the larger aluminum ferrule end to avoid trapping any air bubbles. If you take care to keep the tubing above the tip of the flame, you will not have any black soot.


I use two different colors of sticky-back Velcro, to accentuate visual contrast.

roll each of black and white Velcro

Sticky back Velcro

The hook Velcro of one color goes on one end of each pole, and the pile Velcro of the other color goes on the other end. It does’t matter which goes on the “tip” end, as long as you are consistent for all four legs. That way, you know at a glace “opposite” ends will always stick together.

Velcro strip being cut to 5.5 inches

Length of Velcro

If you cut one length of Velcro 5.5 inches long, this will supply all four pieces you need for the legs.

Velcro strip 5.5 inches long being cut in 4

Divide into 4.

You can fold this and cut it in half, then cut each of those in half again.

cable ties being made into open loops

Prep cable ties

The Velcro backing is pretty sticky. However, in the dirt and wet of field work, it would come loose. Hold it on with small 4-inch cable ties. It is convenient to prepare these by partially inserting the tail, to make small loops. Then, they will be ready to use when you stick on the Velcro.

Velcro section being wrapped around pole end

Stick Velcro on

Wrap the Velcro sections around the ends of the poles. The Velcro will overlap slightly. Note that the exact point of one-meter length on the pole is about a centimeter in from the end. This lines up with the center of the width of the Velcro.

cable tie pulled tight around Velcro, tail of tie being cut off with wire cutters

Finish

Slip on a cable tie, pull it tight, and cut off the tail.


bundle held by fingertips to show how light weight

Finished bundle

The finished set is convenient to be bundled up with a rubber band.

pole end with rubber band around

Band stowage

While you’re using the frame, you can put the rubber band around a leg end. There, it will be handy when you pack up.

bundle on scale, showing weight 9.6 ounces

Bundle is light in weight

The entire set weighs only about 275 grams, less than 10 ounces.


I developed this while working on federally funded research grants, so the design is in the public domain. You can build a set for about $35 in parts.

People also request to buy the complete sets from me. These have been people in agencies, who can’t justify the setup overhead. For materials and labor, I charge $192 per set, plus $21 shipping. Free shipping on two or more sets.

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Geotrivia

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, is arguably an attempted clone of jolly old England. How does it compare in latitude with, say, London?

London (51.510939, -0.126423) is more than 200 miles (320 km) further north than Victoria (48.429074, -123.365744). Victoria is a little south of the latitude of Paris.

So, what does England line up with in the contiguous United State?

Nothing. The southernmost point of England, Lizard Point (49.955512, -5.208722), is about the same latitude as Campbell River, British Columbia (50.024343, -125.282589), or Garibaldi Provincial Park (49.914004, -122.751321). Further east, it lines up a little north of Winnipeg, Manitoba (49.876143, -97.142472). This is more than 150 miles (240 km) north of even the odd jut the US border makes north at Lake of the Woods (49.384471, -95.153387).

The northernmost point of England, on the border with Scotland (55.810209, -2.036247), is 80 miles (128 km) north of the southernmost point of the Alaska panhandle (54.662193, -132.684565), so this is the only overlap between England and the USA, far southeast Alaska. Unless you count the Aleutian Islands (southernmost point: 51.215139, -179.130465), which actually dip a little further south than the M25 ring road around London (51.258421, -0.083643).

Which is further north? Medford, Oregon, far south in the state, near the California border? Or Medford, Massachusetts, in the vicinity of Boston, in chilly New England?

The two towns are at practically the same latitude. The center of Medford, Oregon (42.339493, -122.860266) is only about 6 miles (10 km) south of the center of Medford, Massachusetts (42.424104, -71.107897), so close their outskirts would overlap.

Which is further north? Portland, Oregon, with its mild, almost Mediterranean climate? Or Portland, Maine, on the icy rockbound shore?

Portland, Oregon (45.524255, -122.650313), is about 125 miles (200 km) further north than Portland, Maine (43.659443, -70.267838), which lines up on the Oregon coast with mild, green, foggy Reedsport (43.703852, -124.103028).

What does Maine line up with on the West Coast? Surely, feels like it must be Alaska!

No, the furthest north point of Maine (47.459851, -69.224461), lines up with the Southcenter freeway interchange of I-5 and I-405 (47.462883, -122.265114), in the southern part of the greater Seattle metropolitan area.

Why are west coasts so much milder than east coasts?

This is oversimplified, but: Equatorial winds push warmed ocean water from the east, which sets the major ocean basins into great gyres, clockwise in the northern hemisphere, counterclockwise in the southern. Winds in the mid-latitudes are from the west, so as they pass over the warmed water brought poleward by the gyres, the air picks up heat and carries it to the first continent it meets. Since the winds at these latitudes are generally from the west, the warmed air will come on to western shores. There are complexities beyond that, but that’s basically it.

close-up of two winter jasmine flowers, one with five petals one with six


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Garden idea: Fake your forsythia

This has already fooled two experienced gardeners. It looks like forsythia. It is forsythia. But wait! This is still January. Way too early for a forsythia bush to be blooming! What gives?

winter bare forsythia bush with winter jasmine growing in it

Forsythia?

Ok, Ok. The little yellow flowers are really winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum). That plant is growing up through the still-bare branches of the forsythia (Forsythia × intermedia).

I’ve always liked winter jasmine. The bright yellow flowers are a cheery reminder of sunshine for our gray winter landscapes. But how do your grow the plant, with any sort of grace?

If you let it sprawl, it gets all over into everything, with the grass coming up through it. I’ve seen it trimmed into a low mounding hedge, but that’s a lot of trimming. At the Chinese Gardens downtown, they use it effectively, overhanging the edge of a pool, with the sight of it reflected in the pond surface. But I don’t have any water features. You can train it up a trellis. But then you have nothing but nondescript green viny twigs there all the rest of the year.

I got the idea for this from a friend’s house, where he did have his winter jasmine trained up a sort of columnar trellis. Nice, I thought, but a lot of work. Let’s do double duty. The other part of the idea came when someone mistook winter jasmine for forsythia.

This would never have occurred to me. To a botanist’s eye, of course, forsythia and winter jasmine look nothing alike. The winter jasmine has green twigs while those of forsythia are brown. Winter jasmine flowers are five- or six-petaled, while forsythia has four. This was a revelation. That, to the public, these two plants could be mixed up with each other.

close-up of two winter jasmine flowers, one with five petals one with six

Winter jasmine

Well, I thought, if they see them as the same, let’s work with that. I trained the winter jasmine to grow up through the forsythia. This was easy — just drape the drooping jasmine twigs up through the forsythia branches, once or twice a year. Chop off any extras that get too much.

So, now we get to enjoy this forsythia bush “blooming” two months early.

By the way, I decided I did not care to have my forsythias as big wild things, taking over acres of landscape, as they try to do. So, I have trained them to be trees. When they were starting, I did not allow any growth below a certain height, about a foot off the ground. This established a trunk. Now, I just break off any shoots that try to come up from ground level. I can use the space below them for other things, like spring bulbs. And maybe a few stray branches of winter jasmine.


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Air organ

Chris told me a story today, par-for-the-course of his abusive upbringing. How his father never gave one shred of support or validation to anything Chris did.

Chris was about age 12. He had self-taught himself to play piano, and was pretty good. His father, who had refused to pay for lessons, didn’t know any of this. There was a school recital, and Chris performed beautifully. The teacher came up to Chris’ father afterwards, gushing, “You must be so proud!”

Chris’ father was dumbfounded. All he could say was, “Thank you.”

“After that,” Chris told me, “For my next birthday, my dad bought me an air organ.”

“What’s that?”

“Oh, it was a toy,” he shook his head.

If you look it up online, you’ll see it’s true.

At first, I thought Chris had said “air guitar”. That’s about the size of it.

grape cuttings, rooting in jars of water


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Growing grapes, part 1, propagation

Growing a few grape vines around your house is a different proposition than a commercial vineyard. Much of the information you will find is geared towards large-scale production. In this post, I am going to concentrate on backyard growing. There are significant differences in focus, both in propagation techniques, and in training the vines.

 You start a new grape vine from a “cutting”. A cutting is simply a section of grapevine. You get roots to grow from the bottom, and leaves to grow from the top, and then you have a new grape plant. Grapes will grow from seeds (except of course seedless grapes), but you’re not sure what you’re going to get. To propagate a certain variety, you want to use cuttings.

In grape growing, you prune off a considerable amount of vine each winter. This naturally provides material for cuttings. Most information about grape propagation is geared towards these winter cuttings, made from dormant, leafless vines. I’ll discuss these, but also alternatives.

To start a sizeable vineyard, a grower would, of course, be dealing with a great number of cuttings. The easiest way to get these is to section up the prunings from existing vines. So a lot of grape propagation information concerns the mass organization, storage, and rooting of these winter cuttings. On a backyard scale, however, not all these points apply.

To divide out a section of vine to make a cutting it takes, of course, two cuts. One is the lower cut, which will be the bottom of the cutting, where roots will grow. The other is the upper cut, the top of the cutting, from which the leaves will develop. In large scale propagation, it’s handy to be able to tell these ends apart at a glance, and so a tradition has come about: The lower cut is straight across the vine, just below a node. The upper cut is angled, just above another node. If you receive grape cuttings, they will usually be done this way. If you are dividing up grapevines to make your own, it’s a handy grammar. However, you don’t have to strictly follow this.

Cuttings are usually made with at least three nodes, such as the one on the left in the picture below. This gives nice strong cuttings.  You may be surprised how long three-node cutting are. You may have a hard time finding a place to store them. You may be bringing some home in your airline luggage. You may have difficulty digging a hole deep enough to plant them. So, if you are making cuttings, and length is a problem, you can make two-node cuttings, like the one in the middle of the picture. (Click on the picture to enlarge.)

Three grape cuttings, one with three nodes, one with two nodes, and one with four nodes.

Grape cuttings: 3-node, 2-node, and 4-node.

It’s fine to have more nodes, such as the four nodes of the cutting on the right.

I have had one-node cuttings grow, by accident. When I prune my grape vines in winter, I just chop up the small stuff with my pruners, and let it fall on the ground. Usually, a few pieces happen to land among the garden plants just right, and get watered just right, so that some time the following summer they start to grow. Roots come out below the node, and the node bud opens out into leaves. So, if one little section of grape twig is all you can get, you might be able to grow a vine from it.

small section of grapevine, with only one node, shown as an example of how small a section can serve as a cutting

Even a small piece like this can grow

Commercial propagation consists of bundling up the grape cuttings for winter storage, and then getting them to grow in the spring. You may read about technique such as burying them in sawdust or sand, using rooting hormones, burying bundles upside down, and using bottom heat in a propagation bed. I’ll explain what these are about, and how they apply, or don’t, to home propagation.

The basic issue of storage is to keep the cuttings alive, and keep them from sprouting too soon. The main reason cuttings would die is from drying out, thus the burying in damp sawdust or sand. This is reasonable for large bundles, but there is no reason for you to go get these materials for only a few cuttings. You can just keep your cuttings in vegetable bags, like any other produce.

As I’ll describe later, you can start your cuttings growing in the winter. But then you are faced with the problem of keeping the plants healthy until spring when they can go outdoors. So, unless you particularly want to do this, you should keep cuttings cold, so they stay dormant. If you have only a few cuttings, you can keep them in your refrigerator. For more, you can store them outside.

Freezing is not particularly a problem for grape cuttings. Any variety you are planning to grow, which is hardy in your climate, can stand up to your winter temperatures. However, in continental climates, winter weather is often very dry. Therefore, grape cuttings left out on the open ground can dry out. A convenient way to both avoid this, and keep the cuttings organized, is to slip them into plastic vegetable bags, and tuck these under a few inches of dead leaves or other mulch. In a mild, wet-winter climate like the Pacific coast, you don’t even need to bury them. Grape cuttings may be too long for a single bag. You can use two bags, one “telescoped” inside the other.

grape cuttings in plastic bags, showing that if cuttings are too long for one bag, you can use two bags, one overlapping the other.

Bags for long cuttings, one overlapping the other.

If you have plenty of cuttings available, the easiest way to start a grapevine is simply to plant a number of cuttings close together where you want your vine.

eight grape cuttings planted close together

Grape cuttings planted

Here, I put eight cuttings close together. This was in early March, but you can do it any time in winter the ground is not frozen. I did not use any rooting hormone, or other treatment. The ground was so stony, I could not plant all of them as deep as ideal, which would have been with only the tip above ground.

Still, six of the eight cuttings grew. This picture is from the following December.

the same eight grape cuttings the following fall

Grape cuttings after a season’s growth

The point of this technique is that, even though some of the cuttings die, you still get a grapevine going. Just pull out the dead ones and the extras, and leave the strongest. If you have lots of cuttings, which you will if you have an existing grapevine, or know someone who does, this is by far the easiest way to start a new one.

Incidentally, there does not seem to be any pattern to which cuttings take hold. In this case, the two that died, out of the eight originally planted, looked just as strong and promising as the ones that grew.

the two cuttings that died, of the eight originally planted

The two cuttings that died

This multi-cutting method does not, of course, make sense for a large-scale planting. For that, you want to be pretty sure each cutting will grow, so you can line them out in rows and end up with a vineyard. From cuttings just stuck in the ground, I have always had more than 50% grow, typically 75%. But that’s nowhere near good enough for commercial production.  Filling in 25% gaps would be a lot of effort. It would be almost as much work to take out the extras, from mutliple cutting planted at each spot.

The propagation techniques you come across in the grape literature are all about increasing the odds per cutting, so you get one grape vine from each thing you plant.  For home-propagating a few vines, these techniques may not apply. If you have lots of cuttings, you can get away with a low per-cutting success rate.

But what if you have got ahold of only one precious cutting, which you absolutely must make grow? Maybe you had to pay a lot for it, or it was all the source could spare. Maybe it came from halfway around the world, and you will never be able to get another. I stumbled on a simple, inexpensive technique that, for me, has given 100% success: Root them in water.

Nowhere in all the propagation literature had I ever heard of rooting grape cuttings in water, but it works quite well. It allows you to carefully monitor progress, as well as being interesting to watch. It would be far too much fuss for mass production, but it’s ideal for a few.

grape cuttings, rooting in jars of water

Grape cuttings, rooting in jars of water

Just put your cuttings in jars that have some water. Change the water if it gets too murky. Because there is plenty of water, the cuttings cannot dry out and die, unless you let the water dry up. You can put the jars outdoors, in direct sun, so any leaf growth is firm and strong.

grape cuttings that have been in water, laid out to show the details of roots

Cuttings that have been in water, growing roots.

If you look close at the picture above, you will see that the source of the cuttings did not much follow the “grammar” of number-of-nodes, and straight- and angle-cuts. But the cuttings are rooting just fine. The conventional wisdom is that grape cuttings grow roots from the nodes. However, as you can see, the roots are coming from the bottom of the cuttings, ignoring the nodes. Cuttings do have a tendency to put out more roots near nodes, but this is by no means strict.

Cuttings with roots at this length are ready for planting. Short roots like this are called the “rice” stage; little white rods like grains of rice. Roots let to grow to the “spaghetti” stage are more prone to break off. Longer roots don’t give much advantage in water absorption. They have to develop a new set of root hairs, from additional growth, before they can supply much to the plant.

Virtually always, cuttings in water will have leafed out by the time they root. This is the main thing you will have to fuss over.

Roots absorb water, and leaves expend it. A typical scenario is this: Grape cuttings are planted out during cool, wet weather. They look fine, the foliage fresh as lettuce, as long as the rains remain. Then, one day, the weather turns hot and sunny. The roots can’t keep up, and the leaves shrivel. In the extreme, the whole thing may die. It can also happen that the leaves shrivel up, but the cutting hangs on till it finally makes enough root growth to put out new leaves. Although a cutting like this may survive, it will be set back, and not make nearly as much growth in its first year as a cutting without this hardship.

What to do? Simply shade a newly planted cutting until it adapts. You can rig up special shaders in various way, but often the simplest thing is to just put a lawn chair on the sunward side of a new grape cutting. This would be on the south side in the northern hemisphere, on the north side in the southern hemisphere. A cutting can handle as much indirect sky light as there is, and it won’t have much trouble with morning and evening sunshine. It’s direct mid-day sun will that will dry it out.

You only have to shade a new cutting for a few days, or a few weeks at most. Soon the roots extend and send more water up to the top. The leaves grow and send food down to the roots. And the plant is in business.

Up till now, we have been talking about cuttings from winter-dormant vines. I found by accident that you can root green leafy summer shoots.

Once, I had a chance to get grape cuttings of a variety I wanted to try, but it was midsummer, not the usual time. I kept the cuttings in water, intending to study them. After some weeks, I noticed they were growing roots.

cuttings taken in the summer that have grown roots

Summer cuttings may drop their leaves by the time they grow roots.

This can take quite a while. In this case it was September, and by then the shoots had dropped their leaves. But I had a rooted cutting I could plant.

detail of roots on summer grape cuttings

Roots on summer cuttings

Later, I saw summer grape cuttings being propagated in a university research greenhouse. These were two-bud cuttings, and half of each leaf had been removed to reduce water loss. The cuttings were under an “intermittent mist” system, which is a method that works very well, but it rather complex to set up.  So, if there is a variety of grape you want to try, and the only time you can get cuttings is when they are fully leafed out in summer, you can get fairly good success by rooting them in water.

For various reasons, you may need to transplant a grape vine. If at all possible, do this while the plant is dormant and leafless. Leaves lose a lot of moisture.

In my experience, you can transplant a grape vine of any size, but a mature plant will be set back for about a year. It will take hold, as though it were a large, rooted cutting, but it will put out less growth the first year after transplanting, and produce fewer grapes. A large grape vine can be quite physical to wrangle, so take this into account in deciding whether you want to move a vine, or simply start a new one. You can have grape vines in full production, from cuttings, in three years.

Below is a picture of a one-year-old grape plant, dug up for transplanting. This grew from a cutting merely stuck in the ground, with no other help than regular watering. It is typical for a vine to make only a few to several feet of top growth the first year. It’s developing lots of roots, getting ready to take off following year. Now, there is more root than top.

one-year-old grape plant, dug up for transplanting

Grape dug up for transplanting.

Grapevines typically have a root system that consists primarily of relatively few long, snakey roots, rather than much of a root ball. Notice the plant in the picture: Even though more roots started from near nodes, the strongest root came from between nodes. This is just the way it happens sometimes.

Grapes are mostly woodland plants, where their roots have to compete with trees. Their roots grow long, to seek out what they need. For the backyard grower, this means that after a few years, you are going to be finding your grapes’ roots many yards away, mining water and nutrients from whatever garden beds they can get into. Be aware of this when choosing a planting site.

Grapes do fairly well with their roots under a lawn, but be aware of what this can mean. For some years, when I lived in a dry climate in Colorado, I grew grapes on the chain link fence that bordered my neighbors. The neighbors were much more lawn conscious than me, so the grapes put most of their roots over there, where they could get more moisture. Then, at one point the neighbors were going to sell their house, so in order to spruce up the lawn, they sprayed weed killer. The grapes took it up, and nearly died!

You can of course grow grapes in pots, but they are not naturally adapted to this.

grape vines growing in pots

Potted grape vines

This picture is of some grape vines, in their first summer, developing from rooted cuttings. It is only July, and the plants are already getting to unmanageable size. If they were in the ground, the roots would have extended at least as long as the vine top growth. But here, the roots are having to spiral around and around inside the pots. These plants are sustained by drip irritation, and their water demand is only going to increase. If the moisture were ever interrupted, the plants would be severely stressed.

Of course nurseries only sell grapes as potted plants. Typically, these vines are fairly small. If they had been let to grow large in pots, they would be significantly potbound. They are going to have to stretch out their roots some time. If possible, let them do it from the start.

Now, I would like to demystify some of the grape propagation information you are likely to come across. Often, terms are given without any definition, and techniques are stated without any reason why.

You may come across the term “callus” in grape propagation. Callus is whitish cauliflower-like growth that plants may form in the process of re-organizing their tissues.

callus on the ends of grape cuttings

Well developed callus on grape cuttings

Some varieties of grape develop a considerable amount of callus, which serves as a signal that roots are on the way. However, others grape varieties make no visible callus before roots pop out.

a grape cutting that has roots, but developed little callus before rooting

Some cuttings root with little callus

The propagation literature may recommend a certain operation to “callus” cuttings; that is to nudge them towards creating roots. This is what “callus” means, used as a verb. Keep in mind there may or may not be any visible change.

The main reason grape cuttings fail and die is that leaf growth outstrips the moisture roots can supply.  Most of the details of large-scale grape propagation are to get around this problem, so a higher percentage of the cuttings succeed, and a vineyard planting will requires less fill-in afterwards. Again, this is less important for a home grower, but it’s the reason behind the recommended methods.

A bud is ready-made. All it needs to do is open and put out leaves. However, for a grape cutting to grow roots, it has to re-organize its tissues to create these. Different varieties of grapes vary in the time-lag it takes them to do this. In the extreme, you can get a leafed-out cutting that still has no roots at all. To improve on that, you want to speed up the formation of roots, relative to top growth.

Rooting hormones act as “auxins”, which are a type of naturally occurring plant hormone. Plants produces auxins in their growing shoot tips, and the auxins are transported downward through the stem. If the stem is cut off, the downward travelling auxin accumulates at the cut end and stimulates the tissues to re-organize into roots. There’s more to it, but that’s the general mechanism.

This explains why reluctantly-rooting grape cuttings will finally get around to growing some roots when the buds open. The growing shoot tips produce more auxin. This is how the water method works. It provides life support until roots grow, no matter how long it takes.

Rooting hormone is simply externally supplied auxin. Much like natural auxin, it moves downward through the stem and accumulates at the lower cut end. The usual mode of application is by dipping the rootward end of a cutting into a powder or a solution, so the hormone starts near to where it’s needed. Then the cutting is planted in a soil-like medium.

It’s an open question whether rooting hormone would help cuttings root in water. Would the auxin accumulate in the water and help? Or would the water dilute it, and lessen its effect? From the product standpoint, this is usage beyond its specifications. From the plant standpoint, grape cuttings root fine in water without it.

Another aid to rooting is “bottom heat”. All else being equal, plant life processes go faster at warmer temperature. If we were to keep the bottom of the cutting, where we want roots, warmer than the top, the lower end should grow roots while the top is still dormant.

This is, in fact, exactly what happens. Bottom heat is much used in commercial propagation. However, when you start looking into it, you will find it amounts to considerable outlay in effort, equipment, and expense. You will have to decide if the investment is worth it for a few grape cuttings.

The idea of burying bundles of grape cuttings upside down for some period of time is to use nature as bottom heat. Since soil warms in the spring from the top down, this will make the root ends of the cuttings warmer than the tops. This technique could tip the balance in large-scale commercial production, if the weather and climate cooperate. However, think for a moment what’s involved in digging holes big enough to bury long bundles of grape cuttings. Not to mention, digging them all up later, to plant right-side-up. There is no reason to do this, to start a few new plants.

I have tried various things with water, to get roots while buds were still dormant. One time, I used winter-dormant cutting in late fall. I put them in water, in an indoor growth chamber about 70 degrees F. I knew that most deciduous plants have a “chill requirement” and the buds won’t open until a certain time period of cold weather has elapsed. I figured I could get roots, with the buds still closed.

Well, the plants had their own idea. The cuttings rooted well, but the buds opened too. By January, I had healthy, actively growing grape plants. Again, unless you particularly want these decorations, you should keep your cuttings cold, and dormant, till spring.

I tried the bottom-heat idea, with water. My system involved an aquarium heater, in the refrigerator. The bottom ends of the cuttings were held at about 78 degrees F, while the tops remained about 40F. This worked, to some extent, but it was a huge amount of trouble.

Coming soon, part two, grape vine training.


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Recipe: Chunky Toscan hummus

Get garbanzo beans (the traditional Toscan “cicer”). Soak them. Cook them till soft. Get raw garlic, a clove or two for every cup of beans. Traditionally, this would have been the wild Allium toscano, of the Toscan steppe, but you can use regular garlic if that’s all you can get.

Put the garlic cloves in a small pot with a lid you can hold tightly closed. With the lid on, shake the pot hard, up and down, for a minute or so. Magically, the skins will come loose. This is the traditional Toscan way of peeling garlic. Do not, under any circumstances, use garlic peeled in this manner for any recipe not strictly Toscan.

Grate the garlic into the cooked garbanzo beans. Mash up the beans, but only enough so they hold together. Leave some of the beans whole. Mix in about a quarter as much tahini, and about a tablespoon of lemon juice per cup. Enjoy!

The ancient Toscans eschewed the creamy-smooth type of hummus that has become universal in the modern US. Preparing meals in their native sylvan hills and glades, they mashed up the ingredients just enough so the mixture would stay on the “shibapu”, the traditional Toscan eating knife. That way they could get back to enjoying their pastoral Tuscan lifestyle, without food processors to clean up. Also, the noise of food processors would have attracted banditos.


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Gibbs economics

I was asked to review the book “Solar Hydrogen Generation: Transition Metal Oxides in Water Photoelectrolysis” in regards to alternative energy production. I loved the geeky chapters because I’m a sucker for any sort of super technical chemistry gossip. But I want to offer my perspective on the gap between such information vs. practical systems. Most people realize there are “complications”, but I would like to share my ideas on how to think of these complications in a systematic way.

I will use an economics analogy to explain a thermodynamic term called “Gibbs energy” (in older publications “Gibbs free energy”). Gibbs energy is the deal-breaker (or -maker) in a physical system, to tell whether it will “go”. It’s like a bookkeeping analysis to see if a business model is viable.

This is of course way oversimplified, but: You have raw profit, and you have organization costs. If you have enough profit, you can gloss over management. If you have a slim profit margin, your system may still work if carefully managed. There are even cases where an otherwise unprofitable system will work if you “add” enough of the right kind of organization.

Gibbs energy has two terms, which I’ll simplify to “energy” and “entropy”. Energy is the basic “bang” of the system, sometimes obvious sometimes not. Entropy is the “organization” of the system. More organized means lower entropy. In the technical thermodynamics of the Gibbs equation, the energy and entropy terms are of opposite sign. This means, conceptually, “buying” organization using energy, or vice versa.

For a simple system, like an electrochemical cell, the terms are fairly straightforward to quantify. However, any system of real relevance, such as biological life or renewable energy, is much more complex, partly because it is less definite just where the boundaries of the system are. Though harder to quantify, it can be easier to conceptualize.

For example, a pure substance is more “organized” than a mixture, thus lower entropy. Picture a gold ingot sitting beside a heap of mine tailings. The gold is more “organized” than the original state, the mountain of ore. You can see that you have to “pay” energy, effort, management to get the gold. Incidentally, the whole scene, gold plus waste rock, is now less organized, higher entropy; but that’s another story.

Back to the case of the semiconductor hydrogen reactions. At the scale of the titanium dioxide (or whatever) particles, the system “goes”. Ultraviolet light hits the slurry and activates it, splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. (This is not technically correct. It’s actually “electrons” and “holes”, and the chemical reactions may bypass hydrogen and oxygen. But it will serve for analogy.) So far, the practical use of such systems is to get rid of some undesirable organic pollutant. The oxygen produced “burns up” the pollutant, and a little hydrogen may bubble out.

But say you want to adapt these reactions to actually get a flow of hydrogen. Now you are faced with providing a feedstock of the organic material, as well as getting rid of the “burnt” carbon dioxide. Alternatively, you could let the slurry bubble out a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen — extremely explosive. Either way, your management costs have shot up. The larger system has to be much more “organized”. Is there still enough overall energy, enough “profit”?

Say you could magically get clean hydrogen. Hydrogen is a gas, and gases are inherently high entropy, relative to liquids and solids. The atoms are flying around more freely. To bring it to a more organized, manageable state, you can see you would have to expend effort. You could compress it into high-pressure tanks. You could liquefy it at extremely low temperature. This management “costs” energy, and cuts your overall profit.

Maybe you could chemically combine hydrogen with carbon to make a fuel that would be liquid at room temperature. That’s what gasoline is, and is why such fuels are so popular. But there is yet no practical way to do that. It would take extremely organized chemical reactions. Again, the management costs.

The closest that exists so far is the work of George Olah, which has come to fruition here. At first glance, this seems like the answer. You take carbon dioxide and water and you end up with the liquid fuel methanol. Methanol is a fair substitute for gasoline, not quite as high energy density because it contains some oxygen (it’s already part “burnt”). Poisonous, to be sure, if we drink it, and will readily kill anything it’s spilled on in any quantity. In this regard, similar to gasoline. But methanol is more readily biodegraded, once dilute enough.

But peek behind the curtain, using Gibbs energy, and you see how the Iceland plant is “cheating”. The energy is geothermal, essentially free. The carbon dioxide feedstock is volcanic gases, already concentrated; that is, lower entropy. To collect the same carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere would take enormous “organization” costs of energy. Maybe someday it’ll be feasible, but not now.

I want to make a nod to the supposedly “poor” efficiency of biological life, as photosynthesis. The number is usually quoted as a sad one or two percent, compared to our even crude solar cells at 10%. But look at the outputs.

Solar cells make electricity, which must be used at the same moment it is produced. By some reckoning, it has infinite entropy. The “management” term is our huge electrical infrastructure, with all its controls, including any storage. Yes, we have made it work, but it works best for steady inputs like hydropower or fuels we can burn at will. For “higher entropy” inputs that fluctuate, like solar and wind, we have to provide ever more organization.

As an aside, I saw a blurb about future cities harvesting their own energy, the skyscrapers coated in “quantum dots”. I love it! Those would presumably be molecule-sized solar cells, each feeding into the grid. What a wonderful futuristic image, compared to the clunky ones we have now: Blocky three-by-six foot panels, weighing some forty pounds, holding arrays of hand-sized solar cells. Most people don’t realize that if even one cell in the array gets shaded, the efficiency of the whole thing plummets. (This is why solar installations look so stark. There can be no shading anywhere.) This problem could be solved, but again at an “organization” cost of more complex electronics. The management of a cityscape of quantum dots would be, well, futuristic.

But, organization is clearly the way to go. Looking again at photosynthesis, the final output is a chemically stable solid, say wood or grain. It just sits there until you’re ready to use it. This is accomplished by the extreme organization of biological life. Life just “does” it for you.

Unlike transition metal oxide systems that need scarce, high-energy ultraviolet photons, plants can get by on abundant, low-energy red photons. Plants deal with the high entropy (extreme dilution) of their feedstocks without you even noticing. They scrape together enough carbon out of the fraction-of-a-percent carbon dioxide in ambient air. From this smidgen, they build huge forest trees, continents of waving grass, fields of corn. They quietly eke out their soil mineral feedstocks in a similar way. They don’t have to go halfway around the globe for strategic metals.

Each chlorophyll molecule is essentially your quantum dot. The highly organized biochemical machinery is in place to bring that energy out into a stable carbon-based compound, such as glucose, even at the cellular level. This is done with no extreme pH sulfuric acid or potassium hydroxide electrolytes, no nightmarishly high temperatures. This energy stock can be stored locally in the cell as starch, or transported. No batteries. No spinning flywheels. No explosive pressures or high voltages. When the energy stock is to be transported, the transport system is part of the package too, in the form of the plant’s vascular system, which runs on water.

We haven’t even talked about repair, recycling and replacement of defunct equipment. For built technology, these issues are routinely swept under the rug when looking at product lifecycles. Heavy metals from electronics leach into groundwater. Plastics spiral into the oceans. Even innocuous materials have be dumped and buried in landfills.

For biological life, the recycling was all worked out millions of years ago. Dead plants just rot. Before they die and rot, they live with dust, dirt, grime, muck, random weather conditions, scarcity, breakage, etc. All the things anybody who has ever tended machinery knows can be a full time job.

Again, for real-world systems, the “management” (entropy) costs are easier to conceptualize than to quantify. But when you look at all the entropy terms that living things routinely play ball with, a one or two percent overall “efficiency” is phenomenal. Biological life is the benchmark to beat.