QBARS - v21n2 Duffer's Dilemma

Duffer's Dilemma
Howard Browning, Stamford, Conn.

As a not-very-small boy, my entry in a birdhouse-building contest was some thing like an old-fashioned ice-box. This was my compromise between a birdhouse for eagles and one for wrens: either was welcome. Neither came.

As a rhododendron hobbyist, I sometimes find myself in the same well intentioned and non-productive stance. For instance, I have just installed lights in my propagating frame.

Anyone who has read much on the subject knows that, as early as 1945, the Department of Agriculture was announcing that "home gardeners who do not have access to greenhouses can now start propagating cuttings and seedlings in the home basement or storage room...using ordinary...fluorescent lamps as an exclusive light source.*

*V. T. Stoutemyer & Albert W. Close, "Plant Propagation under Fluorescent Light", U.S. D.A. Ag. Res. Adm., Beltsville, Md.

Sometime in the early '60s (by which time we had learned that incandescent lights also were necessary to supply the red bands needed in propagation), triggered either by the A.R.S. Bulletin or some more casual source and impelled by dissatisfaction at the percentage of rooting in my hot frame, I began collecting data on propagation under artificial light.

Early in January we turned on the switch over a couple of hundred assorted cuttings which had been rooting (or not) peacefully enough minding their own business in seeming health since late fall.

While I cannot now prove, and may never he able to prove, that light makes any difference to my cuttings, I can truthfully say that nowhere in the literature on the subject, or in being, is there a light assembly like mine.

Basically, my lighting unit consists of four Sylvania Grow-Lux tubes, two 48" and two 24" fixtures, and two incandescent fixtures with 15 watt bulbs, suspended from a 4'x5' sheet of 22 gauge, "B" finish stainless steel to increase reflection. The steel sheet, in turn, is bolted to a piece of  ¾" outdoor plywood of the same dimensions, thoroughly saturated with copper naphthenate and spray painted. All controls are in a box attached to the outside of the frame away from the saturation moisture inside; these include timing, switches and relays, and ballast.

Now all of this represents prodigies of work and electronic virtuosity on the part of my son, to whom I'm intensely grateful (even if it did take me years to prod him into "volunteering" for the job. His interest in flowers begins and ends with looking at them.)

This leaves me with one lighting assembly attached to an eight-year-old lid composed of six pieces of partly rotten 2"x2" pine sitting on a hot frame which has seen its best days and will end up next year as a deep frame.

Light installation on hot frame
Fig. 36.  Light installation on hot frame of
Howard Browning.  Note reflection
on stainless steel.

Weight of the lid, as best we can figure, is around 120 pounds. We're going to have to install some sort of block-and-tackle system so I can raise this monster when I must water and work in the frame without fear of the whole thing crashing down to ruin an electronic marvel, a winter's crop, and, incidentally, me.

Just before we were ready to throw the switch, I called Dr. Sidney Waxman, that friendly and patient authority on the subject of lights in floriculture at the University of Connecticut, to ask him if I need fear my cuttings, some a couple of months removed from natural, sun, might be burned by my lights.

I got my answer ("no") but also got other news: that the lights, if properly spaced and assembled, will be primarily useful in the stimulation of more vigorous root growth after the cuttings throw roots. All I was trying to do was persuade more of them to root; I didn't know I particularly needed more vigorous roots.

This brings me to my point, which really is beyond poking fun at myself: that there seems to me to be a real lack of useable, understandable, accessible primer information for rhododendron amateurs who have neither the time nor the means (nor the gardeners) to do all-out preliminary researches before plunging into actual experimentation with new techniques they read about.

For instance, after at least two years of pondering, I wrote Sylvania, in June, 1964, asking for beginner's instruction in putting together a light assembly for propagation purposes. I assumed I'd get a form letter and a rough mimeographed diagram back, probably with a list of needed supplies, and certainly with a clear exposition of how to keep all this gear from coming between me and my cuttings.

Instead, I received a helpful and courteous letter, naming the Sylvania fixtures I needed, but giving no help or guidance on such baffling matters as what to mount the assembly on, how to move it when I wanted to work in the frame, whether I could have it outside the Mylar covering my frame without loss of light, etc., etc.

In fairness, nothing I have seen from any source tells me how I can have lights in a frame pretty well sealed for maximum moisture and still have access to the frame for watering, inspection, and potting purposes.

I suspect there are several roots to our trouble. Much information we amateurs ordinarily would like to have is jealously protected by the growers, who seem to think they are thus checking competition. I suggest this is shortsighted and wrong-headed and, as a professional in public relations, I'll argue that these secrecies reduce sales.

Also, I think much writing in the field is done without due consideration for the tremendous gap in knowledge and background between today's educated "pro" and us bumbling amateurs.

And I am sure that agricultural faculty members, and other literate people in the field, who do want to teach us amateurs, fail to take into consideration the problem faced by a businessman who must squeeze precious hours out of evenings and week-ends for his hobby. It's rough to act out a new idea, only to find yourself stymied because the writer over-estimates the depth of your information and your ability to supplement it with minimum pain.

We can't run around from nursery to Ag campus to estate gardeners' offices looking for information; we're busy in the daytime. And we don't feel important enough to work over the Nearings and the Gables, the Leaches and the Shamarellos, or the big growers, East and West, in long correspondence of interest only to us.

I don't have any cure for this situation but you can be sure I give it weighty thought every time I lift that 120 pounds of steel, copper, glass, wood, and ceramics to stick my head and shoulders into my hot frame.

And you can be sure my mental eyes dart wildly from here to there like a cornered rat's every time I recall the warning that my stainless steel will absorb, instead of reflecting, ultraviolet rays. Because there just isn't any way to get that stainless steel separated from those lights excepting to throw away the whole assembly.

My only hope is that ultra-violet isn't necessary for my purposes. The file isn't clear.

Note: We're sure many amateurs are deeply interested in propagation, and equally sure many of them have worked out equipment and techniques that would be of interest to our readers. Contributions for the Bulletin would be welcome. Suggestions by commercial growers might be very useful; we feel confident that very few commercial rhododendron growers wish to protect any secrets; they are just too busy to volunteer writing, which for many of them is harder work than the actual propagating. - Ed.