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A personal story

In my garden in Yamhill County I had an old vine with sweet, luscious seedless grapes. A friend in England liked those grapes, and wanted a cutting, so in December I cut four brown sticks from my grape. They looked like pencils, and I thought they had about as much chance of growing.

I had never taken cuttings before, but I followed the instructions in my large, illustrated encyclopedia. The first step was to make the cut on the diagonal just above a bud, make a straight cut at the base and pare away the wood at the base. This revealed the cambium - not that I saw it, of course, for the cambium is a single layer of cells as thin as mist under the bark.

The second step was to to plant the sticks in a mixture of sand and compost in a pot. The third step was to carry the pencils outside and set their pot under a bush close to the house, where they would be protected from the weather, but stay damp. I was not supposed to forget about them, but I did.

When I remembered, about a month later, I rushed outside. I was worried their pot had dried up. I found them looking as dead as ever, but rain had dripped off the rhododendron, and their soil was moist. In April, they still looked like pencils - albeit pencils that had stood out in the rain. I gave up hope, but I moved their pot to a place where my path into the garden would take me past them, just in case something happened. I was ready to chuck them out, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to give them the old heave ho.

One morning - I wish I could remember exactly when, but I can't - I saw with disbelief that two of the sticks had broken out with tiny pink and green leaves. It was an amazing sight. Life had emerged from what appeared to be dead wood - and it looked jaunty. The fourth stick never did leaf, but a few days later, the third stick showed a small pink bud. However, the bud didn’t open. It turned brown, as if hurt by a late frost. I waited. I didn’t toss him out, and two weeks later the bud unfurled into a small, perfect grape leaf.

The book gave me the next steps. I transplanted my flowering pencils into a larger pot with fresh soil. Every step of the way the book told me what to do and I faithfully - blindly - followed. The three grapes, each now in their own pot, grew strongly that summer, their leaves multiplying and enlarging, each as delicately and whimsically fashioned as the leaves of their forbear.

I had to move the next spring - to leave behind the pear tree and the roses and boxwood and the oaks of the garden I had been given and had made - and I carried the three grapes with me - leafless but with good root balls. I planted them in my friend Val's garden, and they grew. In the autumn, two of them, now as large as good-sized babies, were flown to England, where they have been growing ever since. The third grape I took to my friend Sarah.

Still armed with my book (at 750 pages it weighed about as much as our vine) we decided on the best location, and strong-armed her husband Jeff into digging the hole. Sarah and I mixed the soil that the book said the grape would want and planted him. Sarah was elated when he grew, and one of the last things she ever did was to buy and install a trellis. She had been fighting a gallant fight against a devastating illness, and seemed to be beating it when unexpectedly, on vacation in Hawaii at the beginning of summer, she died.

Her family and friends grieved. That summer there were no grapes on the grape that anyone could see, and no one expected any. They aren't easy to see at first - the bunches of grapes are so tiny before they grow and swell. Then one day in the autumn, I met Jeff on the cathedral porch. He was smiling for the first time in a while, and he said, "You won't believe this, but the vine has one bunch of grapes".

He emailed me a photo, which is the photo used to illustrate Herbert, a poet Sarah loved. Since then the grape has gone from strength to strength.

The excellent book which guided me, and which contains the accumulated knowledge of British gardeners over a thousand years at least, is the Royal Horticultural Society's Encyclopedia of Gardening. "This is easily the best gardening book I have ever bought" writes one of dozens of enthusiastic Amazon reviewers. It is the best gardening book I have ever been given.

Comments (1)

Cat, what a fine and moving story. Plants tend to curl up and die when I look at them, but this book might be what my incompetence needs. Dare one ask in what part of the world the experiment took place?

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