A new graft in my apple tree awaits warmer weather. With luck, sap will rise from the host tree into the scions and trigger vigorous growth that comingles cells from two plants, resulting in a single plant.
How about a crazy science experiment that you can do in your small kitchen garden? I’m talking about combining pieces from two organisms into a single organism that continues living and growing as if this were a natural chain of events. Make a chimera: graft fruit trees.
Grafting fruit trees is the most exotic, satisfying gardening I’ve ever done. It has extended the life of a useless tree, and nearly doubled the apples I harvest each fall.
Why I Graft
My small kitchen garden boasts six mature fruit trees: three apple, one pear, and one peach tree that came with the house, and a second peach tree we planted when the original fell over several years ago (the fallen tree still produces a good crop of peaches each summer). One of my apple trees produces delightful red apples that are great for eating and for cooking. Another produces red apples that are crisp and flavorless, though they always look great. The third tree produces green blemished, scabby apples that are mostly water and have no flavor.
Last winter’s graft looks messy, though I did remove one scion after they both started growing. As sloppy as this looks, in two more growing seasons it’s likely to smooth out, and in four or five seasons, the branch will be a consistant diameter; you won’t notice the grafting scar if you don’t look for it.
After six years of despising the green apple tree, I was ready to cut it down and make room for a replacement. I had bow saw in hand when it dawned on me: I’d always been fascinated by grafting; here was the perfect chance to try it.
Grafting is Easy
For a project that resembles the work of Doctor Frankenstein, grafting is surprisingly easy to do. It’s easiest to graft onto a tree that you’ve pruned for the past two seasons; such a tree will have young, thin branches ideal to receive scions taken from another tree.
Grafting is a late winter activity, though you can graft as long as your trees are dormant. A graft can essentially drown in sap if you assemble it while the tree is active. When terminal leaf buds become plump and ready to open, stop pruning and grafting.
As a winter project, grafting gets you outside when most people aren’t in their yards. For me it’s a quiet, contemplative time when I meet unsuspecting birds who alight before they notice there’s a human in their tree.
My homemade gear bucket holds bypass pruners, a utility knife, cotton twine, and tree wound dressing. I have a similar bucket to hold grafting stock that I carve into scions as I assemble a graft.
How to Make a Graft: Equipment
It takes me from five to ten minutes to assemble a graft. That’s long enough that I want to be comfortable while I’m working. It takes two hands, so I like to have a stable perch; I usually work on a step ladder. It provides a stable base and something to lean against or sit on depending on circumstances.
To gather stock from which to make scions, I use typical pruning gear (I wrote about it in Prune Fruit Trees – 2). I also use a retractable utility knife, a ball of cotton twine, and a container of tree wound dressing. I carry these in makeshift buckets I cut out of gallon milk jugs. Each jug has twine strung through its handle and up through its neck to encourage it to hang upright from a tree branch where I’m working.
While I’m grafting, I constantly shift gear among my bucket, my pockets, rungs on the ladder, and tree branches.
If it’s not cold in late winter, it may already be too late for grafting. Given the coldness, warm clothes are useful… but don’t wear garments you like. I’ve slopped tree wound dressing on winter coats, pants, sneakers, and gloves… tree wound dressing doesn’t wash out easily.
I’ll continue a written discussion about grafting in my next post. In the meantime, I’ve created a video that takes you through every step. The video is nine minutes and 50 seconds long, and includes close-up photos of critical issues. It’s much better information than I had when I started grafting, and it should be enough to get you going. Please watch, and check back here soon for further details and thoughts I wasn’t able to include in the video. Please enjoy: