Rootstocks and Grafts

I recently said goodbye to the little patch of land in my neighborhood where I have gardened the last five years. A shift in the focus of my organization has my family and me looking for a house a couple of miles away in another neighborhood where my non-profit has decided to consolidate its efforts. Continuing the community garden in the old neighborhood just wasn’t feasible, so I found a buyer for my garden space, collected my garden hose, and bid a tearful farewell to the corner lot. I felt a bit of relief as I thought about a hot Texas summer ahead without sore hamstrings, sunburned shoulders or calloused hands from daily weeding and the telltale red and itchy arms from the interminable okra harvest. But it wasn’t long before I missed the feel of the warm dirt on my hands, the magic of those first sprigs of green poking through the ground where just days before I had fairly casually dropped a couple of dollars’ worth of seeds, and the satisfactory feeling of standing up and looking down a weed-free row. There is a garden in the new neighborhood that has not been closely tended in the last year, and I wondered whether it might be resurrected. A handful of us decided to give it a try and with some help from a nearby university’s agriculture department, we set out to at least rid the land of the chest high thistle that had moved in, uninvited.

Fruit trees that had been planted when that garden was begun emerged from their hiding places amidst the thistle jungle, bearing sparse leaves and a few timid blooms. The university’s plant-science expert volunteered for this resurrection project, so I asked him specifically about the fruit trees – not at all a part of my admittedly limited gardening repertoire. He identified each of the trees, spoke about their suitability to the Texas climate, addressed their watering needs, and mentioned we might prune them this winter, but for now they would need all the leaves they could grow. Then, without another word, he retrieved his loppers from the truck and lopped off what seemed to be the healthiest, certainly the leafiest branch in the garden – besides the thriving thistle. I gasped quietly, and armed with my new knowledge, politely asked about his premature pruning. “Oh, that’s just the rootstock,” he explained. “That isn’t supposed to be growing on there like that anymore. Its job is done.”

“Wow. How sad,” I replied.

Not at all, he told me. The root is still there providing support and nourishment. It is still part of the growth process. But its job wasn’t to produce the leaves and fruit. It was chosen specifically for the job of providing a healthy root system.

And so I got a quick lesson in rootstocks and the grafting process of fruit trees. The rootstock is a plant with an established root system. This plant is selected and grown for its ability to interact with the soil, to provide the roots and stem for the new plant, and for its knack for resisting certain pests and diseases. The desired fruit tree is then grafted onto the rootstock. This plant, the scion, is picked for what it can produce above the ground; the way it interacts with the sun to provide energy for the plant or the type of fruit it can produce. The two will eventually grow together and become one plant, although there will always be two genetically distinctive parts of the plant.

I thought immediately of the work of community coordinators and the process of community development. Perhaps it isn’t always the case, but it seems an apt metaphor for the process much of the time. Community coordinators are often the rootstock, beginning -- or at least shaping and supporting -- the work in the neighborhood as we look for people willing to be grafted into the work. As those neighborhood leaders become engaged and begin to interact and grow and bloom, the work of the community coordinator may no longer be visible. And if it is, it may need a proper lopping. The coordinator’s established root system will continue to be supportive and provide some nourishment, but the new leaders will bear good fruit. And that is not a sad ending at all.