Thank you, Mr. Ducker: This lad knows nodes

I have long been rather pleased that I know what a node is. Whenever the opportunity arises, I try to use the word. I trot it out as if it's the most natural, everyday sort of word in the world. "Cut it an angle just below a node," I say.

But I can't help noticing that eyes look vague at the mere mention of a node - and the truth is that it isn't an overused and familiar word. In fact, my own history vis-à-vis nodes only goes to illustrate that nodes are acquired rather than innate, learned rather than inherited. Somehow, people aren't born node-knowing.

I was brought up among gardeners, enthusiastic and professional, either or both. This meant, for example, that early on I was aware of such things as peat, silver sand, rooting powder, John Innes compost, cuttings, tubers, sweet pea rings, and tools like trowels, dibbers, and riddles.

I also was familiar with basic gardening techniques such as disbudding, repotting, lifting, dividing, layering, hardening off, planting out, firming in, and feeding. I could recognize the seeds, so inventive in their multifarious forms, of particular kinds of plants.

I knew how to very tenderly tease apart a close-packed wodge of new seedlings, making sure their roots didn't tear, and "prick them out" one at a time, dropping the roots very gently into small holes (made with a dibber) set in rows in a seed tray - so they could then spread their roots and start to mature into adult plants.

I knew how to tap a clay pot (hard enough, but not so sharply that the pot cracked) against the edge of the workbench so that the plant in it came out cleanly and without damage or disturbance. I knew that to make essential drainage for a potted plant, a crock - a small shard - must be placed, concavely, just over the hole in the bottom of the pot before the soil is added.

This all came to me pretty much by osmosis, the same way youngsters of today seem able to text-message before they can walk, play Gameboys before they can talk, and program the VCR from the stroller.

But nodes were something I came across later on.

When I was finally apprised of the meaning of a node, I discovered I had known for years what it was - I just didn't know its name.

Walter Ducker first showed me a node, but he felt no need to label it for me. This cheerful, friendly, round-faced Yorkshireman stripped the leaves off a small plant stem, and showed me the point at which those leaves had joined the stalk. If this had been a fully-grown tree, this point would have been where a branch grew out from the main trunk. Walter then explained that this was the place at which to cut the stem to make a "cutting," because it would most easily sprout roots from here and make a new plant. And I had plans to make a large number of new plants.

The precise origins of my enthusiasm for miniature hedges is a mystery. But the very idea of them fascinated me - and still does today. The plant out of which miniature hedges were traditionally made was the shrub called Buxus - or, in English, common box. Box is small-leaved, evergreen, and slow-growing. It is easily clipped into a neat top and two sides. It withstands all weather and it survives a great deal of being taken for granted. Box is serviceable. So Walter, having shown me how to make box cuttings, kindly gave me space in one of the greenhouses for pots full of box cuttings. One day, I imagined, all these would become a tiny and tidy hedge.

The kitchen gardens of old English country houses made extensive use of box hedges. These wonderful secret places were usually surrounded by old, high, weathered brick walls. The high walls kept the British climate somewhat at bay, and melons, peaches, and cucumbers, as well as cabbages, leeks, and potatoes were assiduously cultivated for the "Big House." Each bed was edged with low-lying box hedges, providing a clear delineation between them.

I had, myself, this (oddly patriotic) dream of making a red, white, and blue garden, its simple blocks of vivid color organized within box hedges. So I asked Walter for advice.

Walter may have pointed out where best to cut the cutting. But it was years later that I actually learned that a node was called a node.

For this knowledge I have to thank the botany teacher at my secondary (public) school. I am glad I can now thank his memory for this, because this frightening gentleman might have cured my interest in plants for good if I hadn't already found them so entrancing.

He did very successfully put me off the study of botany. He did this by concentrating on a campaign of absolute discipline in his classroom to the exclusion of all else - to the exclusion of teaching itself.

A few intrepid boys survived his awesome regime and went on to discover, in their later school years, that he was a man of great charm, helpfulness, and dedication - both to his subject and his maturer students.

My contact with him was brief and hard. One tiny chink, however, must have opened momentarily in his wall-to-wall discipline, and in that gap he taught us what a node is.

And today, when I make yet another batch of box cuttings for yet another stretch of box hedging - because I am still at it! - I remember Walter Ducker, and I remember the botany master, and I remember what a node is, and I am glad I do.

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