Why Learn to Graft Fruit Trees? Because it can save you a LOT of money.
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That’s my favorite reason to graft fruit trees. My second favorite: because of the immense “look what I did” factor.
Michael Janik, Reno’s “Apple Guru,” taught me to graft my first trees using the “whip and tongue” technique. In the class, I spliced two-inch twigs onto tiny rootstocks. These baby trees, less than 12 inches long, would be six feet tall within two years.
I interviewed Michael later, and he showed me his amazing tree: a Black Twig apple variety, grafted onto dwarfing rootstock, so the mature tree reached no higher than nine feet. Then, as the tree grew, he grafted more scions onto the branches, marking the varieties with gleaming aluminum tags. The tree held over 100 grafts, producing multiple apples: Honeycrisp, Golden Delicious, Prairie Spy, etc. And it sat beside his urban house, producing all these varieties in a tiny space.
THAT is why you learn to graft fruit trees.
Can’t I Plant Apple Seeds?
Yes, you can. But it will most likely not grow to be what you expected. Those seeds contain so many genetic variables that you might get a tart fruit or a tiny crabapple. The tree might have a full top, but inferior roots that don’t hold up to the wind. And you waited 10 years, after planting the seed, to find out that the tree won’t produce fruit good enough for a single apple pie.
Types of grafts include bark grafting, whip and tongue, saddle grafting, bridge grafts, splices, side-veneers, and inarch grafts. Each supports a different purpose, and some work better for different plants. For instance, when a friend ordered over 150 apple trees for her farm, she sat and cried when half of those trees arrived infested with Flathead Apple Tree Borer beetles. Then a friend suggested a bridge graft, which removes the infested part and inserts a live twig to serve as the tree’s transplant system as it heals. A whip and tongue graft is perfect if connecting a scion and a rootstock of similar diameter; a cleft bark graft is better for grafting materials of different diameters. (For this article, I will be discussing the whip and tongue graft for apple trees.) Side-veneer grafts are used for camellias and rhododendrons.
While you can often graft fruit trees of different species, the genus should be the same. That’s why those “fruit cocktail” trees may feature peaches, plums, and cherries on the same tree (Prunus genus), but they won’t bear apples (Malus genus). The closer the species are in traits, the more likely the graft will succeed. Beyond that, there are no rules regarding which species are and aren’t compatible, so speaking with experienced grafters helps.
Grafting works best when the tree is in dormancy and sap doesn’t flow. This dormancy differs by region, but it’s often January to March before the buds become blossoms and leaves. Grafting later than this can reduce the chances of success. You can store scions in the fridge if you cannot immediately graft them onto rootstock.
The cambium layer (the green layer just inside the bark) is the tree’s vascular system. Grafted ends must meet at the cambium layer; the more contact, the better. Using a sharp knife allows straight cuts so flat sides can meet for maximum contact. The whip and tongue technique allows multiple points of contact, so it’s often recommended for beginners.
Scions are twigs cut from a parent tree that you want to replicate. These twigs should be healthy and have good buds since those buds become branches of your new tree. Often, one-year-old wood is best. Do not allow the scions to dry out; dipping ends in candle wax and storing them in the fridge can avoid drying.
After attaching the scion to the rootstock, protect it to avoid dehydration and disease while the graft heals. Many grafters will secure the graft with rubber bands and wrap it in parafilm to keep water and insects out. This material naturally ages and falls off as the tree heals and grows.
If any buds or branches appear BELOW the graft, these will be the variety of the rootstock or parent tree, not the scion. If you don’t want that variety, trim them off when they appear.
Pay attention to chill hours — the number of dormancy hours between 32 degrees F and 45 degrees F. Don’t just select any scion in hopes that it will grow in your area. If you select an apple variety that needs 400 hours of dormancy, like the Ein Shemer, and grows it in planting Zone 7, it may blossom way too soon, meaning a hard frost will quickly destroy any fruiting potential. Most apples need 700-1,000 chill hours, making them better for northern climates. Consult a USDA zone map or speak with a local nursery to learn your area’s chill hours.
Obtaining Rootstocks and Scions
Unless you have a local nursery business that will graft fruit trees and is willing to sell some of their rootstocks to you, look online. Some companies only sell in quantities of 100 or so — and that’s a lot of apple trees! Lately, small businesses like Skipley Farm will order the rootstocks then resell in smaller quantities. Pay attention to product descriptions so you order the rootstocks best for your climate, orchard size, and personal needs.
Those same businesses, which sell small-quantity rootstocks, may also sell the scions from their trees. This allows you to select multiple varieties to graft onto multiple rootstocks or onto one or two established trees.
Or — and this is the beauty of apple grafting — you can often inquire if someone will let you clip scions from their apples in your community. By doing this, you are already choosing apple varieties that work with your chill hours. Take sanitized pruning shears when you cut the scions, as dirty pruners can spread disease. Choose branches about one year old, with the same diameter as your rootstocks or the branches you intend to graft onto. While you can trim away undesirable parts, be sure the part you choose to graft is straight, with at least two vegetative (leaf) buds, and is about the diameter of a pencil. Once you clip the scion, wrap it in a damp paper towel and insert it in a plastic bag. Then, remove the paper towel and dip the scion ends into melted candle wax when you can. This seals in the moisture and allows scions to store in your refrigerator for at least a month, sometimes up to three months.
The Whip and Tongue Graft
Whip and tongue grafts create a larger area for the cambium to touch and a notch to hold the graft into place. Holding the scion or rootstock, use a sharp knife to make a diagonal cut. Make a matching diagonal cut on the other stick so the two sides align. Now, carefully touch your blade to the middle of that diagonal cut and wiggle the knife down, creating a vertical notch. (Be careful; cut fingers are a standard mishap for beginners.) Set your knife aside, gently insert the “tongue” of each end inside each other, then maneuver the twigs, so the cambium layers align.
Now, hold the graft in place while you wrap it in a material that secures it, such as a length of a rubber band. Then take a protective material such as parafilm, stretch it a little, and wrap it around the graft to ensure no air, moisture, or insects can get under the film.
Some grafters wrap in parafilm first, then in the rubber band. That’s how I do it. After practicing with the parafilm, some grafters will buy a stretchy tape that seals the graft and holds it together at the same time.
How long do the protective elements stay on? As Michael Janik told me, “Until they fall off.” If they were secured well, they will eventually fall off on their own as the growing tree pushes against them.
What type of grafting have you had the most luck with? We would love to hear from you in the comments below.
Originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.