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%.

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

I was surprised to get inquiries, asking to buy frame sets from me. I guess that makes sense if you are in an agency and can’t justify the setup overhead. My price, including labor, is currently about $175 per set, plus about $45 shipping for up to 4 sets.

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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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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.


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Yes, free will

The arguments that claim “there is no free will” use experiments like this: Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of the brain causes involuntary movements, such as twitching of a finger. Now, I enjoy a good non-sequitur as much as anybody:

 I took my friend Elmer out to the airport. I showed him how, by hacking into a certain relay on an airplane, I could get one of the wing flaps to lower.

 “Woah!” he said, “This makes it impossible to believe there was ever a pilot in control!”

 “Yes,” I replied, “That’s the only logical conclusion.”

 “And,” as he thought further, “There’s no such thing as flight!”

 “Quite correct,” I agreed.

 “Oh, and…” Now he was holding his head, and swaying, “So my memory. Of my vacation to Brussels, where I traveled by air… Was a complete delusion!”

 “The obvious truth,” I admitted.

 

Sorry. Yes, I know it was a failure. It falls short of funny. It’s stupid. Sorry.

But that is evidently the chain of conclusions that leads from these trivial neurological demonstrations to the sweeping philosophy “There is No Such Thing as Free Will.”

 

We find ourselves in a world built from ideas, created by decisions. Yet, there is no mechanism that turns those decisions into reality?

We find ourselves in a world where all sorts of things fly (bugs, birds, airplanes). It’s obvious they do. There are ways to stop them flying, like a flyswatter. Sometimes the wind is too strong for birds. Yes, terrorists crash planes. But it’s obvious, things fly.

The fact that a system can be sabotaged, hobbled, and hacked does not prove there’s no such thing as the system. Instead, it’s good evidence the system is the main event. The fact that flight can be thwarted doesn’t prove there’s no flight. The fact that free will has limitations is no proof it doesn’t exist.

By the Theory of Relativity, you can hold the perspective that an airplane did not fly from New York to Seattle. Rather, the craft remained stationary while the rest of the universe shifted around it. All the physics works out. But the stationary-airplane reference is useless, except for demonstrating the Theory of Relativity. For aeronautical engineering, you use a frame of reference where the plane flies.

Maybe there is another possible reference system than individual free will, such as that All That Occurs is the will of All. But still, intent creates reality.


 

We have a number of built in — I won’t call them “delusions”, rather “conveniences”. Cases where what we think our brain is processing, is different from what it actually is.

In vision, for example, our impression of smooth continuous motion. Certain people have a neurological breakdown, called “akinetopsia”, such that they lose this impression of continuity, and see only a series of snapshots. If you think about it, between normal blinking, eye-shifts, and perspective changes, that’s about all that’s coming in. So, we think our brain is processing motion, but it’s actually synthesizing it for us.

We develop a sense of familiarity about things. This goes so much without saying that we never notice until it glitches. Déjà vu, that sense of familiarity, yet somewhere we’ve never been. Or the opposite, jamais vu, loss of that sense when it should be there. What is “familiarity”? Memory, surely, but with a sense of time, memory-of-memory, a conviction that “this was this way before”. We know full well that most things were there before we saw them. But this fabricated sense-of-familiarity, in its normal working, gives us a convenient comfort that “this was this way before, for me.”

When we are enjoying a conversation, we sense it as a flow, happening in real time. We are not aware of the processing lags, both to decode speech and create it. We are not aware of processing at all, until we stray beyond a language we’re fluent in.

Incidentally, the case of not being able to choose not to understand speech in your native tongue is thrust up as “proof” there is no free will. I’m sorry. Limitations don’t disprove free will. Free will is not the same as godlike (or diabolical) omnipotence. You don’t have the “free will” to levitate a book by telekinesis. You don’t have the “free will” to hold your breath until you die. More’s the pity.

These examples, of visual smoothing, déjà vu, and conversational speech, all bear on how our minds play with time sense, so life works better. The no-free-will pundits make hay the most from some hair-splitting experiments in a similar vein. Supposedly, your impression of when you decided to take some action, like lifting your finger, occurs up to several seconds after the internal brain waves started, which lead to the action. Ok. So? It’s one more example of how our minds masterfully play with time, so the world makes more sense. We “backdate” our impression of when we decided, but still we decide.

Professional baseball players, with the highest batting averages, go up against a women’s softball pitcher — and she strikes them out! How? It turns out, one of the strongest predictors of success in pro baseball is simply — exceptional eyesight. The pro batter, without ever realizing it, has trained himself to read the body language of the pitcher. The batter knows how the ball is going to go before it ever leaves the pitcher’s hand. Indeed, it’s easy to show that, at the speed the baseball flies, there is no time to visually process its trajectory anyway. Yet, the batter swings, and a good percentage of the time connects. At least until he’s facing a pitcher with different body language.

So, because the batter used his well-trained neurophysiology, rather than conscious thought, to hit the ball, he never “willed” to hit it?

Another irrelevancy brought into the no-free-will harangue deals with that pesky time lag. Researchers introduce a time lag between the sound and the motion in a movie. Subjects shown the movie find it very annoying, when the mismatch is even a fraction of a second, much less than the delay between the brain waves that herald a decision and the impression of having made that decision. This is supposed to prove something.

This proves nothing, except we are used to how things work. First of all, it’s unlikely audio and video actually arrive in our brains simultaneously. We conceptually stitch them together, after allowing for processing delays.

You can perform the thought experiment of watching an unsynchronized movie, and easily imaging how irritating it would be. But imagine this. You are spending a relaxing weekend at a cabin on a lake. It’s mid-morning, and you are enjoying coffee, or the libation of your choice, on the porch by the lakeshore. You casually become aware of an interesting person at another cabin across the water. For convenience, I’ll say “he”. He’s splitting firewood. His big shoulders flex, and the axe comes down. The wood splits with a satisfying crack. The knock lightly echoes off the hills. You watch, cycle after cycle, and you do not find it irritating at all.

But wait. The other cabin is 1000 feet across the water. Sound travels about 1000 feet per second. So there is nearly a one-second delay between his muscular exertions and the resultant sound. Why no annoyance? Because you know from a lifetime of experience that’s how sound works, including the echo. In fact, the time delay contributes to the languid sense of space and atmosphere in the scene.

Ok, it’s my turn to fabricate neurological theories on that time lag between brainwaves and the sense of decision. I speculate that, like sound and echo in a tranquil forest, its purpose is to give a sense of light and space in the mind, the hallmark of a comfortable decision.

“Proof” does not consist in mashing together tenuously related concepts. Déjà vu does not prove, or disprove, past lives. Akinetopsia does not prove that existence is a puppet show. Neurological time lags have nothing whatsoever to say about free will.

apple seeds germinating


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Germinating fruit tree seeds

There is a huge amount of disinformation out there about how to grow fruit tree seeds. Rather than going into all that, this post is about how to do it.

This is not even an experiment. I’ve been growing tree seeds for decades, and I know how it will turn out. This is more a test, to demonstrate the techniques.

I saved a handful of apple seeds, from some random apples I used to make applesauce. Later, I’ll discuss differences in species and varieties, but ordinary apple seeds make a good demonstration.

I divided the seeds into three approximately equal batches, of about 23 seeds.

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The first batch was the “control”, or no treatment. I planted these in a pot of dirt, same as you might plant flower seeds.

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This was on January 22, 2016.

I kept the pot moist, in normal warm room temperature. At the end of the test, May 4, 2016, there was no difference. Not one had grown.

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If you try this with a large number of seeds, you may have one or two random seeds sprout, but this is not the way .

Next, the “freeze” batch, I put overnight in the freezer.

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The next day, I put them in a small ziplock bag with damp sawdust, and stored them in the refrigerator.

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I checked on them periodically. In this check on April 1, 2016, none have grown.

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At the end of the test, May 4, 2016, none had grown.

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Looking close, the moisture around the seeds is becoming milky. The seeds are starting to rot. They are dead, and have been since they were frozen.

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This is one of the misunderstandings. People hear that seeds need cold to germinate, so they freeze them. As if freezing will “break” dormancy, like shattering ice. No.

If seeds are completely dried, some species can survive deep cold, but it only holds them in suspended animation. It does nothing to make them germinate. Usually, it just kills them, as you see here.

For the “chill” batch, I put them in a ziplock sandwich bag with a little damp sawdust. I put this bag in the refrigerator. These seeds need moisture and oxygen to germinate. Polyethylene, the plastic most ordinary plastic bags are made of, is permeable enough to oxygen that this works fine. You can zip the bag closed so the seeds don’t dry out. You do not need to leave the bag open.

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In this check, on April 1, 2016, you can see that some seeds are starting to germinate.

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Germination is a gradual thing. I judged that a seed had “germinated” if the root tip coming out was longer than it was wide. So, on this date, I counted 3.

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In the next check on April 15, 2016, more had germinated. I replaced the sawdust with a damp paper towel, to make things easier to see. This works just as well as sawdust. If you don’t need the see the seeds, you can use peat moss, sand, soil, crumbled up autumn leaves, etc. If you’re doing a lot of seeds, you can mix them in the bag, and then plant the whole mix once the seeds are germinating.

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If you count the seeds, you will notice I did not put back the 3 that had already sprouted. The purpose was to demonstrate germination, not to grow the seeds. If you want to grow the seeds, you can plant them as soon as they sprout. They don’t need cold any more. In fact, cold only slows them down. This is natures way of easing the seedlings into springtime. Chill breaks their dormancy, but then the cold temperatures keep them growing slowly, so they don’t pop up and get hit by late frosts.

Going by my criteria, I did not count the seed in the lower right corner to have “germinated” yet, as its root was not long enough. So I counted 5 more germinated on this date, for a total of 8 so far. But as you will see, it makes little difference in the final tally.

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By May 4, 2016, all the rest of the seeds had germinated.

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Here’s the numbers on this test. None of the seeds grew except those in the “chill” treatment.

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The magic is holding the seeds at a temperature above freezing, but below about 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius). Your ordinary home refrigerator is the correct temperature range. How do you know? If it were too cold things would freeze and if it were too warm your food would go bad. If your refrigerator is working normally, it’s perfect to cold-treat seeds. This is what has happened when you cut open and apple and find seeds sprouting inside. The apple was kept in cold storage, and the period of refrigerator temperature satisfied the seeds’ chill requirement.

The seeds need to be imbibed with water, but not under water. Immersed in water, they would not get enough oxygen.

These are like the conditions a seed would find, buried in the surface layer of soil, through the winter. Even in continental climates, where air temperatures go extremely low, the soil a short distance below the surface seldom freezes so cold.

Here are the numbers on the “chill” treatment, with the dates translated into elapsed time. Chill requirements for plants are often expressed in hours, so I’ve included the elapsed time expressed as hours as well as days.

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Notice that nothing visible occurred for more than a month! It’s as if the seed has a little hourglass inside, which runs down while the chill conditions are met.  If it’s too warm, the hourglass stops. If it freezes, the hourglass stops. But after enough accumulated hours, the seed grows.

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Notice that this is not abrupt, but in most batches of seeds, once it starts it goes pretty quick. This is how nature hedges her bets. If some seeds came up too early and got killed, there would be stragglers to take their place. On the other hand, if the early ones got a good head start and took over more space, the next generation would drift towards lower chill. In tree species that have a substantial north-south range, local populations have adjusted themselves to the best chill requirement for their conditions.

Plants use the same chill mechanism to “know” when to leaf out. It correlates with seed chill. That is, for two of the same kind of plant, except with different chill requirements, the one that needs less chill to germinate from seed will need less chill to start leafing out each spring. All else being equal, it will bloom earlier too.

This explains why certain fruits are notorious for getting their blooms frosted. Peaches have a low chill requirement, and apricots even less. Evidently they originated in parts of the world with cold winters, hot summers, and not much transition (chill) in between. Brought to North America, where the weather has all sorts of wild swings, they get their chill requirement at the first breath of spring. They bloom out, then get snapped by late frost.

Why haven’t they adapted? They never needed to. If you grow these seeds, you will find them very “easy” to germinate. Everyone who ever cultivated them did too. The grower planted a bunch of seeds, and the first sprouts to pop up tended to get planted out in the orchard. This, of course, selected for low chill. The trees did well enough, and if the blooms got frosted too often, well, that region would not be known for apricot production.

If you wanted to develop, say, a late-blooming apricot, you could use this approach. Plant a lot of seeds. Say you want ten trees. As the seeds germinate, pot them up, but when the eleventh one germinates, pull up the first one and plant the eleventh one in its place. Keep on doing this. Eventually, you will end up with the slowest to germinate, high-chill individuals. It might take generations, but finally you would have a late-blooming apricot.

This chill technique for germinating seeds works for most mid-latitude tree crops: apples, pears, peaches, apricots, cherries, plums, persimmons, almonds, chestnuts, walnuts, hickories, etc. It may be hard to believe a tender root tip can break its way out of a rock-hard seed like a peach pit or a walnut, but it does.

Most trees that ripen their seeds in the fall need chill. These include ashes, beeches, and some maples such as sugar maple, Norway maple, bigleaf maple, and vine maple. Tree seeds that ripen in the spring tend to have no chill requirement. They are ready to germinate as soon as they fall. These include elms and certain other maples like silver maple, and red maple. A number of leguminous (bean family) trees, such as locusts and mimosa (Albizia), have no chill requirement. Instead, their germination is inhibited by a water-impervious seed coat.

This chill technique is sometimes called “stratification”. This is from a traditional method of putting layers (“strata”) of sand and seeds in flowerpots or lath-bottom boxes, and leaving these sunk in the ground over winter. You can see why it works. Winter moisture keeps the seeds imbibed. The upper layers of soil maintain the proper chill temperatures. The sand makes it easy to separate out the sprouting seeds when it’s time to plant them in nursery rows. If you do it this way, put bricks or something on top of your flowerpots, to keep squirrels from messing with your seeds.

Seeds that need chill will, of course, germinate just fine planted directly outdoors in the fall. However, there is liable to be a lot of grass and weeds also growing by spring when they come up. You may have a hard time spotting the seedlings, or remembering where they were.

If you want to grow a lot of seeds this way, plastic bags may be easier than pots. Collect up your seeds as they come along, and keep them so they do not completely dry out. For example, cherries ripen in early summer. As you use the cherries, put the pits in some loosely lidded container or a plastic bag with something to keep them a little damp, such as moist sand, soil, peat moss, dead leaves, or sawdust.

If you put them in the refrigerator in the summer, they are likely to have their chill requirement met by fall, and germinate as winter is coming on. If this is what you want, growing them indoors all winter, go for it. But for a more natural cycle, put your seeds in a plastic bag and bury it a little below the ground surface, or under some dead leaves or sawdust. Then, the seeds will stay at ambient summer temperatures until autumn, and their timers will not start running down yet.

Be sure you have your seeds buried before things freeze hard. One time, I had a bag of peach pits out on top of the ground, and a November cold snap went to single digits. All these seeds were killed, but the ones buried just a few inches were fine.

As autumn comes, the temperatures will start dipping into the chill range at night, and the seeds’ timers will start ticking. As the weather gets cooler, the seeds will accumulate more chill hours each day. In midwinter, the seeds may go slightly below freezing, and their timers will stop. But as spring comes, they will resume. As each seed germinates, it will start to put out a root. Keep checking them. If left too long, the roots will be all tangled together, and the seeds will be hard to separate out to plant.


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Germinating ginkgo seeds

I had never grown ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) seeds before, so when I noticed them under a tree in late November, I collected some to investigate.

I had a ziplock bag with me, and filled it up with the “fruits”. Botanically, these are not fruits at all, but that’s another story.  It’s well known that these smell bad, at least when freshly fallen. The odor is described as rancid butter, or dog shit. However the autumn weather had been torrential rain, and the scent was all leached away.

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It was about a month before I got around to the seeds. Meanwhile, I left the bag outdoor so the “fruits” would stay moist in the wet autumn weather. On December 31, 2015, I started my experiments.

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The “berries” were single or in pairs, on stalks.

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When I peeled off the fleshy covering, inside were the seeds.

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I gently cracked them open.

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Inside were the kernels.

I knew that, botanically, ginkgo seeds are not like angiosperm seeds, where the embryo plant grows to a certain stage, and then various inhibitions come into play to keep it dormant. The ginkgo life cycle is more like a fern.

The brown dots on fern leaves shed microscopic dust-like spores. These drift on the wind. If a spore lands in the right conditions of moist soil, it grows into a prothallus. Prothallii are quite common, once you learn to spot them. Here is a picture of some that appeared in one of my potted plants.

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The dark green membranous thing in the lower right is the prothallus. It looks like a bit of seaweed washed up, that hasn’t dried out yet. It grew from a drifting spore, by the grace of drip irrigation watering that kept the soil continuously moist. The prothallii of most kinds of ferns can only develop in continually moist sites (this is where to look for them), though some cliff ferns have prothallii that can survive drying out.

With good luck, the prothallus grows to full size, which is only about a quarter inch across. When mature, it develops male and female gametes on its underside. When there is enough water, the male ones swim to the female ones, presumably sometimes to a different prothallus for genetic mixing. The fertilized zygote develops into a lump of cells, nourished at first by the prothallus. When this embryo plant gets big enough, it puts its first root down, its first leaf up, and grows into what most people recognize as a fern. The lighter green leaves towards the top of the photo are such a baby fern. It is growing out of a different prothallus than the lower right one, but it is behind the leaves and hard to see.

Other spore plants, like horsetails, also produce these gametophytes. “Gameto-phyte”, because it forms the gametes. The horsetail gametophytes I have seen are also green, but fleshier. Still other spore plants, like club mosses, supposedly produce lumpy gametophytes underground, but I have never seen them. The general plan is, the spore grows into a gametophyte, which only does two things: Produces gametes, and then nurtures the main plant till it gets on its own.

It doesn’t seem fair. The fern gametophyte has to eke out a living as a miserable prothallus, harvesting enough sunlight to grow and start the next generation, while desperately living on the edge of death by desiccation. But the main fern plant is big and robust, with roots and tall fronds, and all. Why couldn’t it help out the next generation of gametophytes with some of its bounty?

This is evidently what ginkgoes have done. Instead of casting spores to the wind, the ginkgo holds them on little stalks. As a spore develops into a gametophyte, the tree feeds and shelters it. Instead of having to live free or die, the ginkgo gametophyte has a pampered life. How the gametes get to it from a different gametophyte is another story, but the hint is: Pollen.

So, I looked at these ginkgo kernels, and I thought: When I want to grow ferns, I get the spores, and set up moist mellow conditions, and by and by they to grow into prothallii. Then I just wait. In their own sweet time, they get around to the gamete thing, and then start with the lump of cells. Once the first fern leaf appears, I’m home free.

So, here with this ginkgo seed, it’s all been done for me. No fragile prothallus to fuss over. This gametophyte doesn’t have to be green because it doesn’t need photosynthesis. It was well provisioned by the tree. So, instead of thin and membranous, it’s fleshy and packed with stored food.

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I sliced some of the ginkgo kernels open, and there were the developing plant embryos. This was exactly analogous to the lump-of-cells stage of a fern plant on its prothallus.

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The ginkgo plantlets were different sizes. Some were about half the length of the seed, but some were as short as a quarter the seed length.

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Some gametophytes had no baby plant at all. I guess sometimes the male ginkgo is shooting blanks.

So, I thought, maybe it’s the same as growing ferns. You just set them up and let them take their own sweet time. They don’t need light in this case, but they probably want to be moist.

I divided my ginkgo seeds into three groups. I put them in ziplock sandwich bags with damp sawdust. Probably sand would have worked as well, or moist leaves, or even torn-up wet strips of paper.

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One bag I kept about 40 degrees. This was outdoors in an unheated garage. It might have occasionally got frosty, and sometimes as warm as 50 degrees.

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One bag I kept about 60 degrees. This was indoors, on the floor of the basement.

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One bag I kept about 80 degrees. This was in a plant growing room with warm lights.

On February 3, 2016, I checked on them. This was after about a month, 34 days. All three had been going for the same length of time.

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I picked three seeds at random out of the 40 degree bag. The embryos had grown some, but not much. They averaged about half the length of the seed.

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I picked three seeds at random from the 60 degree bag. Here, the embryos were definitely bigger, about three fourths the length of the seed. If you can see, in the middle one, the root is starting to push out of the gametophyte.

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When I came to the 80 degree bag, I did not pull them at random. I grabbed the first three that were obviously clambering to get out.

gb160_80degseeds

It looks like ginkgoes have something like hypogeal germination. That is, the seed does not get pulled up above ground. The embryo elongates to push the leaf bud outside the seed, along with the root, and then a shoot grows up from that. The upper ends of the “cotyledons”, or whatever they are, stay inside the seed, to continue feeding from the gametophyte.

So, it appears to me that ginkgoes do not have true seed dormancy, as angiosperms do. To avoid coming up too early, in the midst of winter, the ginkgo embryo simply develops very slowly, as long as things stay cold. Instead of counting chill hours, they just pace themselves. When spring comes, they speed up. The warmer it gets, the faster they grow.

If you want to grow ginkgo seeds, just keep them warm, and they’ll sprout. They absolutely do not need to be frozen. Deep freezing would probably kill them. Drying out would probably kill them too. After all, they are just gametophytes.


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Germinating mimosa seeds

I thought that the main germination inhibition for mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) was the water impervious seed coat. This is an experiment to check that.

I found some mimosa pods that had just fallen from the tree. Their structure was papery valves (the flat sides), with wiry reinforced edges.

20151124_080445_mimosa_pods

Mimosa pods

It was evident their dispersal mechanism is to be blown about till the wiry edges wear out, allowing the valves to peel apart and drop the seeds. This goes along with the idea that the seeds are blocked from germination until their hard coats are breached, either from erosion by gritty soil, or long rotting in humus.

I took out ten seeds.

ten mimosa seeds

Ten mimosa seeds

I put them in water to soak.

ten mimosa seeds soaking

2015-11-24 08:10

About 24 hours later, two of the ten (20%) were imbibed with water.

20 percent imbibed by 2015-11-25 06:46

2015-11-25 06:46

This verified the seed coat was impervious enough to water to prevent absorption.

seeds, imbibed and not

Compare imbibed to not imbibed.

Breaching an impervious seed coat is called “scarification”. There are various ways to do it to bulk seeds; but for individual seeds you can use a file, knife, or sandpaper.

metal file

metal file

Here, I scratched seeds on a file.

scratching a seed on the file

scratched seed

I rubbed till the lighter colored interior showed through.

seed coat filed through

Seed coat filed through

I also nicked some seeds with a utility knife. I avoided the very tip of the seed, in case I might damage the embryo root, though seeds like this often protect their incipient root by embedding it somewhat back in the embryo.

Here is a scarified seed beginning to imbibe. This seed was both scratched and nicked. The flap towards the top is the nick.

seed beginning to imbibe

2015-11-25 09:19

The water absorption is a chain reaction. As the interior swells, it disrupts the seed coat from the inside, and allows still more water to enter.

Here is the same seed fully imbibed.

same seed fully imbibed

2015-11-25 12:05

The water absorption goes quickly after the seed coat is breached. Here, the seed has become fully imbibed after only a few hours. Many of the intact seeds were still dry inside after twenty-four hours soaking, and could have remained so indefinitely.

In order to closely observe the seeds, I put them in a standard germination test setup, rather than planting them in soil.

Here they are along the top of the folded, wet paper towel.

seeds on wet paper towel

I close the fold, and rolled this up on a chopstick.

seeds rolled up in wet paper towel

I held this, in light, at warm room temperature, about 80 degrees F.

seeds rolled in paper towel, standing in jar of water

2015-11-25 12:15

Within 48 hours, I had 100% germination.

ten mimosa seeds germinated

2015-11-27 09:01

close up of germinated seeds

close-up

This demonstrates that mimosa seeds’ germination requirement is primarily imbibation with water, and warm temperature. There is no inhibition by light, and no chilling requirement.

This explains why mimosa seldom volunteers in Portland. The time of year when temperatures are warm enough is also the driest weather. Seedlings that germinated in early summer would fail from drought later.