Visiting Jim Lawson, the Paul Bunyan of Bench Grafting

I have an apple bucket [bushel box?] list consisting of people and varieties to find before they disappear. Towards the top of my list of people to find has been Mr. Jim Lawson, an 89 year-old nurseryman from Ball Ground, Georgia. He has been credited for finding a slew of old southern apple varieties and his work has been mentioned in books, propagated by nurserymen/women across the South and planted in many, many yards. He has worked as a professional nurseryman and fruit explorer for much of his life and I just had to meet him.

Last month, I tried to go and visit a *very* old man in Illinois to talk about the nut trees on his property and an hour before we were about to leave, I received a text from his daughter telling me that he had taken a turn for the worst and was going to die. Our trip was cancelled and we never had the chance to talk with him, collect his stories, and tell him how much we appreciated him. Still feeling the sting of that last experience, I decided to embark on an impulsive trip to North Georgia to find Jim Lawson because time is running out. I didn’t have his address and my one attempt at calling him produced no answer, so I reached out to my old college roommate (Cam), who lives a town over, and we tracked him down through the local connection. If I had tried, there’s a good chance we could have tracked him down on a basis of apple tree regularity. The closer we got to his place, the more apple trees we saw in the landscape. Pulling up to the front of his nursery building, there was someone looking at us through the window. It was Jim Lawson. We had found him!

Every now and then, I spontaneously show up at someone’s house and the person I’ve set out to talk with is rather skeptical. I’ve never been turned away, but sometimes I’ve had to really work to stay. This did not happen in the slightest with Jim. He was delighted and excited to meet us.

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About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character. -David Brooks, The Moral Bucket List

I feel blessed beyond words (so much so that I had to take David Brook’s words) to run across people like this in my life. They are continual examples and guiding lights for the type of person I want to be. After only spending a few minutes with Jim Lawson, I knew I had added another mentor to my registry of “people I want to be like.” The thought also hit me that if he didn’t live in Georgia, there would be a real chance that sparks would fly with another life mentor of mine, Anna, who lives on an island in Maine. They would be so cute, just the thought makes my heart want to burst!

Throughout the day, people circulated through his nursery building and with each new addition, we would be introduced as his “apple friends.” Most would come in, sit, and listen to Jim tell us stories. Some would offer up a few words but many just sat, content, until the time came when they had to go. Jim was sad when these people got up to leave and made sure to send them along with a genuine expression of how much their visit meant to him and how he hoped to see them again soon.

Jim Lawson, in the overalls, holding Adele's Choice Hard Cider from Mercier's Orchard in GA

Jim Lawson, in the overalls, holding Adele’s Choice Hard Cider from Mercier’s Orchard in GA

We talked about many topics and I’ve decided to write out the highlights rather than type up the stories word for word (they are recorded).

1.) In his hay day, Jim could bench graft (whip and tongue) 1000 trees in a day. For those of you who aren’t versed in the grafting world, this is nothing short of a legendary feat. These days, he only grafts a few trees every now and then because his hands don’t allow him to do much more. I didn’t press him for a number because I fear it’s probably in the hundreds at a time (what I do).

2.) At 89 year old, he wants to learn how to graft walnuts. So much so, that he’s going to join the Northern Nut Growers Association this year to be a part of their network and hopefully learn more.

3.) He has the “Big O” crabapple, which he will let me come and take cuttings from this summer. He knows everyone in the southern apple world and whenever someone would find or breed an interesting variety, they would give him a call. This is how he got the “Big O.” It’s a great keeper (stores for quite a long time).

4.) In addition to the “Big O,” he thought I’d really like to try the Craven crabapple. The Craven was being grown by a man somewhere in the South (again, the exact story with details is voice recorded) and Jim Lawson received some scions of this tree in the mail. He then started to propagate this tree and spread it far and wide though his nursery. Years later, he received a disgruntled letter from the old man who said that he had plans to patent the craven variety and was upset that Lawson had propagated the tree without his permission. Lawson sent him two Craven trees along with an apology and he never heard anything from the man again. Rumor has it, the man’s original tree had died and if it wasn’t for Lawson propagating the tree, it would not currently exist.

Jim Lawson then got up and walked to a back room in his shop. When he emerged, he was holding two shrunken apples: craven. He gave them to me with exclamations of how well they keep and told me to plant out the seed. My old college roommate must have been rather confused to see me get so excited about receiving two in-edible apples. I can’t wait to plant out those seeds!

craven apple

5.) In order to find old varieties, he’d just ask people. If he was driving somewhere, he’d pull over when he saw an old apple tree and knock on the door. It didn’t matter if they had names or not, if the apple was something he had never seen and looked good, he’d take a cutting and name it after the household name or address. Many of these varieties today still don’t have a true name. Sometimes, people would contact him looking for a specific apple variety and he would help to track them down given his local connections. To this day, two varieties elude him (I’ll update later on the names of these). He’s optimistic that they’re still around.

6.) One time, a man bought two of every single tree he had and planted them on a hillside in North GA. These trees have grown seedlings and are now a thriving habitat for deer. He hears from many hunters about how wonderful and appreciative they are for that planting of apple trees.

7.) He prefers to pour apple brandy over his pound cake.

When we were leaving, we gave him a bottle of hard cider from Mercier Orchards. The type of cider was called “Adele’s Choice” and when he received it, he exclaimed “I knew Adele! She would be so happy to know that they put her on a bottle of hard cider. Oh, this just makes me so happy.”

There’s really something to staying put. However does someone with insatiable wanderlust do such a thing?! I guess the answer will one day be (when/if I settle down to a single area): those people with wanderlust will just have to come and find me!

the over ambitious apple farmer: grafting

As greenhorns (beginning tradespeople), we often have no idea about what we are physically capable of getting done in an hour/day/week/month/season. If there’s a will, there’s a way….right? Let me talk about that for a bit.

I thought my business (Legacy Fruit Trees) would pre-sell 500 trees this year. I pre-sold 4000 instead. “Not a problem,” I told myself…”I’m capable and competent, I sooo have this covered. ”

And so I started grafting. Do you know how long it takes me to graft 250 trees? 8 hours. That’s almost 2 minutes per tree and what I consider to be fairly speedy rate. Here’s the process:

1.) Acquire rootstock (I bought rootstock from Treco, Cummins, Adams County and Cameron Nursery). Rootstock determines the size of your tree (in most cases) and how many years to fruiting. I accepted orders on everything from “standard” rootstock (30 foot tall tree taking 10 years to fruit) to “semi-dwarf” rootstock (down to 12 feet tall taking 2 years to fruit). In a later post, I’d like to review these companies and the quality of rootstock I received, but for now we’re sticking with the basics.

2.) Acquiring scionwood. Scionwood is the most recent year’s growth on an apple tree (any tree you find desireable, you can clone and it all starts with scionwood and rootstock). The time to collect it is in the late winter, when the tree has gone fully dormant (all the sap in the tree is now down in the roots).

3.) Grafting tool. For me, I used the Graftech Manual Grafter by Ragget Industries (review to come later). In the past I just used a victorinox grafting knife, but since I prune for 2 months straight before grafting, I have to give my wrists and carpel tunnel a rest and went with the foot powered machine.

graftech manual grafter4.) Cut scionwood. Cut Rootstock. Stick them together so the vascular cambium  from each are making as much contact as physically possible.

Harrison graft5.) Wrap and seal. I wrapped with a rubber band and sealed everything up using Doc Farwell’s graft sealer. This is the most time consuming of the process and is also the most important. You don’t want your graft union to dry out. Many people used parafilm which will wrap and seal all in one, but it’s not tight enough for my needs with this grafting tool. It will work with other methods, though.

6.) Stick in moist sawdust/peat moss in a cool place and wait for bud swell.

Ok, that’s the quick rundown. Now, 2 minutes per tree…4000 trees…that’s 8000 minutes! 8000 minutes of doing the exact same thing over and over and over again.  At first this was a  lot of fun because grafting is really cool. It’s like putting frankenstein together, only less scary and ultimately ending in delicious fruit. This fun didn’t last very long, though. I started day-drinking beer around the time when my cuticles started to bleed (probably day 6-or-2880 minutes).  It was also really cold and as you can see from the picture below, my grafting shed was (it’s now remodeled) a bit breezy.

Grafting ShedSo I hired someone to help me. The guy showed up and showed real promise and I made the rookie mistake of paying him after 2 day’s worth of help. He never came back.

Then I hired a 14 year old. To all of you out there: NEVER HIRE A 14 YEAR OLD! I had these aspirations of taking him on under my wing and turning him into an orchardist…until I had to re-graft every single one of his trees…which was about 500 of them. Really, if you are going to hire a 14 year old, you have to watch their every move and don’t trust that they understand anything. I wasn’t able to do this because I needed to graft alongside him (you know, to get more done).

A month passed and I hadn’t finished grafting. My fingers and wrists ached, all my clothes were covered in grafting sealer, and my loathing of the activity soared to new heights. This was compounded with the death of my 3 month-old puppy (FedEx ran her over while I was on my way out to the grafting shed) and I was absolutely miserable with 1500 trees to go.

I shared my drama with an apple mentor and he suggested that I stop grafting, plant the rootstocks, and do some bud grafting in the summer. Of course! There was a way out! Budding 1500 trees this summer is doable (I think). If it’s not- I’ve located a professional bud grafter who will come and do all of my trees for me. Yesssssss.

Lesson learned: Discovering (through experience) how long a task will actually take you is called “Wisdom.”

Lesson #2: No matter how passionate you are about an activity, you can burn out. I didn’t think it was possible….

Lesson #3: Teach a bunch of friends how to graft well before the time comes for you to actually start grafting your trees. Have them practice over and over again. Then, hire them. Make sure your friends are over the age of 14.