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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Grafting fruit trees

by: Matron of Husbandry
Throwback at Trapper Creek

Want to increase your fruit tree varieties? Try grafting, an age old skill that is fun and economical. This post is a re-hash of a grafting post I wrote last spring. Only this one is a little more timely so you can try your hand at grafting this spring.

Now is the time to be gathering your scion wood while it is still dormant. These photos show apple tree grafting, but I will stay with basic instructions that will work for most types of fruit.

What you are looking for in scion wood is, one year old wood, or last years growth. Probably the most important thing for me to share here is, sharpen your pruners. Most information I see in print, or on the internet about sharpening recommends once or twice a year, that is for pruning not propagating. Death vs. Life. For propagation to be successful, the cambium layers on your scion wood should not be damaged. I used to propagate dwarf conifers for wholesale nurseries and I sharpened my pruners each day that I pruned for cuttings. My pay depended on a successful outcome. I use Felco pruners and they are easy to take apart and service.

Old heirloom trees will have their newer growth at the top (usually out of reach) so you may need a pole pruner too. If you have young trees, the last years growth that you seek will be close at hand.

I cut off more than I need and leave the twigs whole. Label and mark your scion wood with: who, what, where, and when. If you are trying to save an old variety this information will be important, also if your graft doesn't work out, some of this info. may lead you to the cause of the failure. But, also, grafting needn't be only for named varieties, you may have a favorite apple that you covet, but the tree is unmarked. Go for it, if it is a good apple, it is worth propagating.

After labeling, wrap with paper towels, and seal in plastic bags, and refrigerate or heel in, in a pile of deep sawdust, or dirt. The goal is to keep the scion wood dormant and not let it sweat and mold, OR dry out.

The wood on the left of the growth ring is one year wood, suitable for grafting. The wood on the right is too old and tough to make a succesful graft with.

Now besides gathering your scion wood, you need to be purchasing rootstock for your new trees. Size matters..., there are many different rootstocks to choose from. This is a personal preference. I have used both standard and semi-dwarf, and now years later I wish I had used all standard. There are trade-offs to both, standards grow very large, take a long time to bear and are harder to harvest, but they are long lived, and work well with livestock. Semi-dwarf and dwarf, bear early, are easy to harvest but may not last your lifetime due to poor root systems. All my semi-dwarf trees are uprooting and needing more mainentance, my young standards are coltish but not uprooting. Our home orchard here on the farmstead was planted in 1881 as part of the proving up. The trees that have survived that time span, still bear (weather permitting) more than we need. I want my grafted trees to be here for my grandkids!

If you do purchase rootstock, when it arrives, plant it in large nursery pots or in a nursery bed in your garden where the young trees can stay for a year. The grafts need to be protected from intense summer sun, so plan accordingly. If you have a lath house for shade plants this would be ideal. I use pots and place them under a tree, near a hose, so I can easily monitor them and water if needed.

Another option is reworking some existing trees you may already have. If space is your concern, this may be the best option. We have all seen the 3-in-1 trees advertised. Now you can make your own. The only criteria is you have to match scion wood diameter to the limb you're grafting on. No apples and oranges either - only the same types of fruit can be on the same tree.

An old timer taught me this skill, and his best tip was to graft when the rootstock had broke dormancy, and the leaves were the size of mouse ears. Easy to remember, and what he really meant was make sure the sap is flowing enough to make your graft successful.

He also instructed me to save prunings from my apple trees for practicing my cuts. Like a good pie crust, you want to make short work of it. Optimum is two cuts for your apical wedge, one on each side of the scion wood. This requires a sharp knife and practice. Professional grafters get good at this because they are grafting many trees, it is harder when you do a handful a year. I'm lucky to do it in 3 or 4, but my grafts still turn out OK.

When the big day (mouse ears) arrives you will need the following:

  1. Dormant scion wood
  2. Pushing rootstock
  3. Sharp pruners
  4. Sharp knife
  5. Tree labels and a Sharpie
  6. Polyethylene tape (tree tape)
  7. Nerves of steel (just kidding)

Close-up of cutting the apical wedge. Start about 1/2" up the stem and make a downward cut, like sharpening a pencil with your pocket knife. Yeah, that is how I usually sharpen my pencils, that are outside.

Turn the scion wood over and do the same on the other side. Lay your scion wood on a clean surface and prepare the rootstock.

Cut the rootstock horizontally, matching the size of the rootstock to the scion wood. Next make a vertical cut/split about 1" down the rootstock.

Gently push the scion wood down into the rootstock cut. Match the cambium as close as possible. Cut the scion wood down to 2 - 3 buds. Note: in this photo the layers are NOT lined up yet.

Keeping the cambium layers aligned is important and the most difficult part of the graft. If they don't touch, the sap can't bridge the gap and heal the tree.

Wrap the joined area tightly with polyethylene grafting tape, (sometimes called tree tape) to keep the graft from drying out. You can also use grafting wax or grafting rubber bands. If you use the tape, you can actually watch for the callous as the the two surfaces join.

Grafted April 2008.

Keep your new tree out of hot sun, keep it well watered, and rub off any growth that appears below the graft union. Soon you should be able to see new growth emerging on your scion wood.

January 2009. A new , old tree!


Sadge said...

Thanks for such a wonderful tutorial. There's a big old apple tree in the oldest part of town, that I glean apples from often. I have no idea what kind it is, but it bears in years when all of my trees get frosted. I'd love to graft a piece of it. Do you know if apples can graft onto crabapple roots?

Rhonda Jean said...

This is a fantastic reference. Thank you. I've got my grafting knife and tape ready and I WILL be grafting this spring.

Bovey Belle said...

What a wonderful tutorial. We have a lovely old Russet tree in our paddock - probably planted in late Victorian times and nearly as tall as the house. I would love to graft that - perhaps I will have the confidence to try now.

Kate@LivingTheFrugalLife said...

Excellent tutorial, thank you. We have an old and unidentified apple tree on our little lot. It makes superlative apple cider and the apples are great for eating too. I may think about trying some grafts at some point.

I wonder if you have any comments about producing one's own rootstock from apple seeds. I've heard vaguely of people doing this. Any thoughts on that? Pros, cons, how long it might take?

Hayden said...

Great, thank you! The pics are a huge help.

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Sadge, thank you. Yes, you can graft apples on crab apples. I love finding those trees that always bear reliably. We have several, it took a lot of research to find out what they were, but regardless of the name, I appreciated their constant supply of fruit.

Rhonda Jean, thank you.

Bovey Belle, thank you, apple trees are wonderful, I was skeptical at first, the process seemed daunting, but after the first success, it became an addiction to graft more. You will do great!

Kate, thanks, one can never have too many apple trees - right?

Apple seedlings grow wild around here, planted by birds and bears. I think cold stratification outside in protected pots, that are covered to protect from rodents etc, would work well. Follow what nature does, by planting your apple seeds in the fall, by spring you should see some sprouting. A small semi-shaded nursery bed works well for this, filled with a mixture of sawdust or peat and soil. You should have small apple trees in two to three years that would be big enough to graft with.

Hayden, thanks, I'm surprised no one mentioned my dirty fingernails. :)

Addendum: In our area we have a HOME ORCHARD SOCIETY, and they have scion wood exchanges, classes on fruit care, identification and tastings etc.
There may be a similar group in your area.

Bel said...

Wow... You explained this so clearly, and with such great photos, that I think I can do it!

I grew mulberries from cuttings this past year, and scored 10 out of 10 (so now have 10 young mulberry trees in the ground all around the paddock!)

But with this skill, I can really keep creating the food forest I dream of, without so much $$ outlay. I'll let you know in a year or so how we go...

Thank you!

Marc and Renee said...

Great post! I've always wanted to graft fruit trees but have been a bit afraid to try. You now have me feeling a bit more brave. Thanks!


Janelle said...

Oh thank you, thank you, thank you!! I am from the islands and so many of my favorite fruits are grafted, my grandpa knew how to do that so well :( Thank you, this really is a lost skill and I will be sending off for pieces this week :)

Gina said...

Thanks, MOH! I plan to obtain root stock and hope to graft some trees from the ancient orchard trees on our property. The apples are gret, but the trees are old.

Your photographs are fantastic!

Robbyn said...

Just what we need, Nita...we'll be coming back to this. Thank you so much!

P~ said...

Great post throwback!
You really know your stuff. Thanks for taking the time

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Bel, it's amazing isn't how fast some things grow, I find the whole process of propagating very interesting. Best of luck. :)

Marc, you'll be surprised how easy it is, once you try. I think in our minds the thought of making a new tree looms large, but it really is pretty simple, but I know what you mean, I was intimidated at first, and then impatient and then excited to see buds opening!

Janelle, good luck on your grafts and reviving a lost skill in your family!

Gina, our trees are old too, every winter, I cringe at limbs breaking and the toll the snow takes. I'm trying to make a new orchard from our favorites. It takes so long. The old homestead rule of establishing the orchard was a good one - and should be followed these days.

Robbyn, thanks, too bad I can't graft one of your limes on my apple trees!

P~, hope this helps, can't wait to see the lemons!

Patty said...

This is a terrific post - and so timely! I've just ordered 25 apple root stocks to start my own small orchard in the spring. I was inspired to try grafting because my neighbour has the most incredible crabapple tree that produces hundreds of pounds of fruit every year like clockwork. I have voraciously read everything I could find on grafting, and this is exceptionally well-written - very clear! I'll be busy come spring time for sure now...thanks for the virtual push!

Anonymous said...

This information looks incredibly helpful! As newbies in the growing business, my dad and I were incredibly disappointed that our young apple and pear trees have sustained heavy pest damage. We've done some checking into bridge-grafting and I personally think that's our best/only option to save them. Dad, however, is wondering about grafting scions onto rootstock of a completely different type of tree, specifically osage hedge. I'm HIGHLY skeptical, but I don't have any more knowledge than he does. What do you think of his plan?

Anonymous said...

about the dormant scion wood...if i collect it lets say from an orange tree, but the rootstock hasn't broken dormany yet, how long can i keep my scion wood and how should i keep it? and something else off topic, if i take a cutting of lets say a pomegrante and put it into a perlite soil mix, should i water the mixture or just mist the cutting? it's saying sometimes to water them but i thought you don't water things until the roots have come out, you just mist and keep very humid? thought you might know:)

Anonymous said...

Bob said...

like your info but i want to ask can a pear scion be grafted to some other root stock i have a frien who has a pear tree and he says that it is graftied onto a hichory root stock

Anonymous said...

Great grafting video I came across...

Anonymous said...

Great video I came across...