I love apples. They are the most amazing fruit. There are so many possible uses for them. In the beginning we made applesauce from the neighbor’s pasture apples. Each fall we would fight the cattle to pick 20 5-gallon buckets of various no name apples. They were as organic as they could be, worms and all. Some cooked down well for sauce, others not so well. It was a learning experience; all apples are not created equal. When the neighbors sold their farm, our apple supply disappeared. In addition to the applesauce we had become accustom to dried apples, canning sliced apples for pies and crisps, apple butter and fresh apples. I had planted a few trees of our own trees, and even after our source was gone we managed on what we were growing and the kindness of others (it is amazing how many people consider the apple tree in their yard a nuisance and are happy to have you haul off the apples.)
Then, last year, along came the cider press. I was very excited to see an ad on craigslist for a homemade cider press, and in my price range–cheap. They were moving and cleaning out the barn. We loaded it in the back of our car, cobwebs and all. Suddenly a whole new door opened, I needed more apple trees to feed the cider press. What about hard cider, hmmm, sounds interesting. Now, about those apple trees… I chose to make my own.
Homemade Cider Press
What is grafting and why is it a useful skill? Fruit trees are grafted for a couple of reasons. If you plant a seed, like Johnny Appleseed did, you never quite know what you will get. The fruit of one tree is pollinated with the pollen from another tree and the seeds will have qualities from both. It could be a great combination, or not so good. With fruit trees it takes several years to fruit and determine if it was a good combination; I don’t know about you, but I want can’t wait. From a time perspective it just makes sense to grow a tree that will produce a fruit that is useful rather than gambling on an unknown seed. By grafting, or joining, the roots your want to the variety of fruit tree you want you have a winning combination you can count on.
In addition to useful fruit, when grafting you can control the tree size or hardiness. There are different rootstocks that contribute size and hardiness of the tree.
Finally, Blossom Time
Definitions, What Does it All Mean?
Hey, wait minute, what is rootstock? Maybe this is a good time to add a few definitions. Rootstock: The root portion of the tree Scionwood: Last years branch that has 3-4 buds Cambium: Part of the tree that is under the bark, it is the growing portion Dormant: Time of year when tree is not growing, winter
Rootstock, at the Root of it All
So back to our rootstock, we live in Wisconsin so cold hardiness is one important consideration. The size of the mature tree is another. When thinking about tree size there are some things to consider. If you plant standard size trees they are large, produce more fruit, and live longer, BUT they are harder to prune and pick the fruit. Dwarf or Semi-dwarf trees are a good choice for smaller areas, but do not live as long. Standard and semi-dwarf trees also have a better anchor system of roots, so there is no need to stake them. They are also more drought tolerant. Most of the trees that I have planted are standard, with some semi-dwarf. The recent apple trees that I grafted I used a rootstock called Malus Antonovka, a standard hardy variety.
Fruit Tree Just Waiting for Spring
Free Rootstock and Scionwood
In our area there are what we call “pasture” apples. They have spread on their own and are basically wild apples. In a neighbor’s pasture there are dozens of trees that all seem to have different types of apples. I have one apple tree that the rootstock came from one of those “pasture” apple seedlings that I dug up. Then I grafted on a branch (scionwood) of a very tasty green apple that was also “wild” along our neighbors driveway. In the end I have a nice apple tree at no cost. We call it Patty’s Apple, our neighbors daughter—Patty, used to arrive at the school bus stop with a handful that she had picked on her way.
Once you have decided on rootstock you need scionwood to graft onto it. The possibilities seem endless. I have cut scionwood from friend’s trees, wild tree, my own trees, and purchased heritage varieties from nurseries. Apples can be grafted to apples, cherry to cherry and so on. You cannot graft apple to plum. You can, however; grow several types of apples on one tree. If you have an older tree or a started tree with multiple branches you can graft other varieties on to its different branches. It is a good way to increase your varieties in a limited space.
Cutting your own Scion
If you are cutting your own scion it should be cut while the tree is dormant. Early March is a good time in our area. Select a branch that is about 1/4 -3/8” in diameter and has 3-4 buds on it. The branches that grow straight upwards, waterspouts, are not good choices (they should be pruned off). Cut the branch and store it wrapped in a damp paper towel in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
Pruners, Electrical Tape, Box Cutter- Just the Basics
Putting it All Together, Tools You will Need
The tools are pretty basic: · Rootstock · Scionwood · Pruning shears · Utility knife/box cutter · Electrical tape
There are a couple of different types of grafts that I have used. If the two pieces are less than ½”, and about the same size, a whip graft can be done. Using the pruning shears remove about 1” off the end of both the rootstock and scionwood. This will remove the dried-out section. On both the rootstock and the scionwood make an angled cut about 1-1 ½” long with the utility knife. Match the cut sides together and use about a 2” piece of electrical tape to tape them together and seal the cuts.
Whip Graft Cuts
Whip Graft Joined (Note this is for demonstration only, wood is a little dry)
Whip Graft Complete
This is the joint that I usually use. It can be used on larger material, up to 2”. First, remove about 1” of the end of the scionwood and rootstock with the pruning shears. Next, make an angled cut on both sides of the scion with the utility knife, forming sort of a point that is 1- 1½” long. On the rootstock use the utility knife to cut a split. This should be about 1-1 ½” deep. Slide the scion cut into the slit. If it does not entirely fit into the split a little of the tip of the scion can be pruned off. Once they fit nicely together use about 2” of the electrical tape to make an airtight seal.
The cleft graft can either be used on two pieces that are the same size or if you have a larger piece of root end you can move the scion to one side or the other so the cambium is touching on one side. If it is much larger the tape will not work to seal it and a graft sealing compound would need to be used.
In addition to grafting onto rootstock a graft can also be added to an existing tree branch. When this is done any portion of the tree growing from the added scion will be that variety. This enables you to grow more than one variety on a single tree. I have one tree that is Patty’s Apple and Wealthy on the same tree.
Cleft Graft Cut on Scionwood
Closer Look at Cleft Graft Cut
Cleft Graft Cut on Rootstock
Cleft Graft Union
Its a Wrap–Sealing the Graft
Wait for the Magic
Plant your newly grafted tree in a protected spot. I use the end of one of my raised garden beds as a nursery for the first year. Make sure to put hardware cloth or some sort of rabbit proof fencing around them in the winter.
If the graft is successful the buds on the scion will begin to grow into leaves. Once the new tree begins to grow I use a scissors to make a cut through the electrical tape. If you try to unwind it the delicate bark pulls off with it. By cutting it with the scissors it allows moisture and air in and eventually weakens the glue on the tape and it falls off. If it is left on it can girdle the tree (strangle the tree as it grows larger.)
Healed Graft, I Made a Tree
Year Two, Putting Down Permanent Roots
Your grafts looked great, you had some new growth the first year, now it’s time for a move. Find a sunny, well drained location for your baby trees and transplant them. Be sure to plant them at the same level as they were planted before, the graft is always above ground level.
If there are buds or leaves growing below the graft rub those off, you do not want the rootstock to grow branches.
What to keep and what to rub off
I like to put hardware cloth around the base of the trees to protect them from various critters, some wild and some of my own.
Why Make Them Yourself?
Sounds like a lot of work—why not just buy bareroot trees? If the goal is to just have one or two fruit trees then it is much easier to visit a local nursery and purchase bare root trees that are already a few years old. I like the start from scratch idea of grafting trees, but there is also the huge economical aspect if you want a quantity. One bareroot fruit tree at the nursery will cost about $30, and you will be limited to the half dozen or so varieties they have. If you order rootstock and scionwood you can get 10 roots for $30 and scionwood for $5 per stick. At the minimum one stick per tree, but I was able to cut each stick in half on the last order so I had 2 trees per stick for a cost of $5.50 per tree. Out of the 10 that I grafted onto rootstock only 1 did not grow.
Graft did not take and rootstock is growing new branch
I think there was a problem with the scionwood because I used the other half of it on a graft to a tree and it didn’t grow there either. This spring I cut off the old graft area and re-grafted a new piece of scionwood onto the rootstock of the tree, the rootstock is still fine. Now I have 9 new trees to transplant to their permanent locations. The best part is that I had so many wonderful heritage varieties to choose from.
For a number of years, I had not been able to find any rootstock. Then a teacher at our school asked if I would come to his classroom and show the students how to graft a tree. I mentioned that it was hard to find the rootstock and he told me about Fedco Seeds. I placed a pretty big order last spring and was delighted with their products and prices. Their website, fedcoseeds.com, is also very informative about the heritage apples they sell and the best uses for each apple are.
I should also admit that in addition to the 10 trees I grafted, I ordered 10 started apple trees that might give me a couple year jump on the grafted ones. It will be interesting to compare them and see if they do begin to produce fruit earlier. Some people call me the sheep lady, I am the chicken lady to others, hopefully I can add apple lady to my moniker.
For more grafting information check out- Grafting and Budding Fruit Trees from Extension at University of Minnesota.