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CRAFT Tour: Useful Plants Nursery

July 27, 2012

Once again we were greeted by great weather for the fifth CRAFT tour at Useful Plants Nursery at Earthhaven Ecovillage on July 14th. We were hosted by Debbie Leinhart and Chuck Marsh co-owners of Useful Plants and Lily and Lewis, members of the nursery crew. The tour centered on a Nursery Plant Propagation workshop and we are so thankful to the Useful Plants gang for inviting us to the nursery and sharing their abundant nursery knowledge with all of us.

As we arrived the crew had set up three different demo stations under the welcoming shade of several trees.

At Lewis’s station the focus was on propagating groundnut, comfrey, and jaiogulan, wit root or tuber divisions. As Lewis explained the importance and uses of each plant he described how to properly take a root cutting to propagate each plant type. We could see the excitement in his face as he described the benefits of each plant!

Groundnuts were a Native American staple food for centuries. A member of the legume family, groundnut fixes nitrogen in the soil, and the potato-like tubers offer three times the protein of a potato. Comfrey, used for its leaves, has a long history of use healing wounds and a wide variety of ailments in traditional Chinese medicine and is easy to propagate. Jaiogulan, another traditional Chinese medicinal used for its leaves, is a very vigorous ground cover (be careful where you plant it!). Also known as the “immortality herb” Jaiogulan is a powerful antioxidant that strengthens immunity and is typically used for a tea.

To propagate each of these you take a root of a living plant, snip off a small section and stick it in the soil in your pot, cover with another layer of soil, water as needed until the plant emerges. It can be helpful to dip the root in powdered root growth hormone, which helps the root acclimate to the new environment. Lewis shared a nursery trick for filling pots with soil – scoop potting mix into pot then gently shake and tap the pot to settle soil. This technique avoids compacting the soil. And it’s always important to label your cuttings! At Useful Plants they tailor their potting mix to suit specific needs of different plants, but the standard potting mix includes pine bark base, perlite, peat moss, clay, worm castings, lime, rock phosphate, green sand, NOG granular root growth hormone, Fertrell fertilizer, a slow release fertilizer, and of course a good dose of blood, sweat and tears.

Lily demonstrated how to propagate stem cuttings on several varieties of kiwis and elders. Propagation by stem cuttings is a common method for growing shrubbery, and a way to produce plants with desired traits identical to the parent plant. At this station we got to try our hand at cutting stems.

Lily explained that you want to make sure there are at least 2 nodes

on the stem you will plant. One will be below the soil line and one above. Cut the stem about an inch below the bottom node with pruners, and then scrap off the bark on one side. You want to leave a quarter size piece of green on the stem, but cut off all other leaves. Dip the bottom of the stem in root growth hormones and put in a cell of planting tray.

Voila! With a little tender care and water you’ll have yourself a full tray of new plants.

Debbie was in charge of the third demo spot where we learned about grafting. Grafting is a technique use to join two different plants into a single plant. Typically, the scion or upper part of on plant is joined to the rooting part or rootstock of another plant known for its hardiness, disease resistance, or dwarfing characteristics. This method allows the plant to exhibit identical characteristics to the parent plant like stem cuttings and is more common with fruiting trees.

Debbie explained that the goal with grafting is to cut each part – the scion and rootstock – so that the cambium layers, or the vascular system of the plant, match up allowing the graft to take successfully.

The Whip & Tongue cut and the Bark Graft are two grafting methods that Debbie likes to use. When making a grafting cut you want a straight smooth line which makes it easier for the two woods to knit together. After the two woods have been joined they wrap the graft with Buddy Tape, an opaque stretchy tape that degrades in the sun to secure and protect the graft. The root stock needs to be well matched to the scion for the graft to be successful, like an Asian Persimmon to and American Persimmon.

Chuck began Useful Plants Nursery started in 2001, and Debbie came on board as a business partner and nursery manager in 2009. They lease 1.5 acres from the Earthhaven community, and irrigate from the drinking water system. Until they develop a more efficient watering system they water 12-13,000 plants by hand daily, by far their most labor consuming task. Currently, they are growing potted trees and shrubs on about 1 acre of land, but have cleared an upper area to expand their production and introduce more permaculture techniques. They are looking at creative ways to have a profitable nursery business that fits the foot print they have now, and that may involve partnering with other farmers in the future. In 2009, they were propagating only 9% of the plants they sell, and are now propagating 30%, with a goal of reaching 80% by 2015.

Useful Plants nursery consists of several small spots around the property where they grow plants in containers to a sellable size including one large hoop house, small hoop house, and a fenced-in sales area.  They market their plants almost completely as retail at plant shows, the Asheville City Market, to school and community groups, and small home and garden centers. They’ve found that word of mouth, their website, and a series of YouTube videos are how most customers find them.

The crew has become smitten with two innovative types of containers – the Root Maker Tray, and the Root Trapper II. Both containers are designed to encourage a fibrous root system and discourage root circling or binding. When the roots reach the edges of the containers they are air pruned, so when it comes time to plant them they are ready to take off.

Debbie and Chuck left us with some Nursery words of wisdom: choose your partners wisely, start small and try growing several different things on a small scales before investing heavily in any one thing; you will have a learning curve, and you will kill lots of plants; consider your location and be clear about where your market will be; and be prepared to constantly adapt your business model to changing economic situations.

As always the tour was followed by a lovely potluck or delicious homemade dishes. Many thanks to Debbie, Chuck and the whole Useful Plants crew for giving us new insights into growing plants and the nursery business!

Our next CRAFT tour will be Sunday August 5th at Mountain Harvest Organics led by Carl Evans and Julie Mansfield. The tour topic will be a Timber Frame Workshop and Sustainable Forestry on the Farm. Join us!!

CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers and their interns networking and learning opportunities. Membership is rolling, so join anytime! For more information or to join, click here. Or contact Cameron Farlow, OGS Farmer Programs Assistant at 828.338.9465 or cameron@organicgrowersschool.org.

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