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Grafting in my Small Kitchen Garden

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.

What, no Grafting Knife?

There are several styles of knives available called “grafting knives.” One style of grafting knife is supposed to be ideal for bud grafting, which I haven’t yet tried. Another style would obviously be useful for the types of grafts I make. Such a knife costs close to thirty dollars. My utility knife cost about four dollars, and replacement blades come in inexpensive packs of 5. Were I to snap a blade on my utility knife each season (I tend to snap one every third year), I’d spend less in 20 years than I would to buy a grafting knife.

If I were developing nursery-quality grafting skillls, I’d invest in specialized tools. There are some clever, expensive devices that will fit scions to large branches, or mate two branches of identical diameters. The technique I use is somewhat primitive, but it works… and it’s a bargain.

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.

Get Grafting

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:

 

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13 Responses to “Grafting in my Small Kitchen Garden”

  • Good instructional video Daniel, maybe my dad can practice this at our small farm back home with the orange and kino (orange derivative fruits) trees that we have :)

  • TJ:

    Nice video Daniel! I really enjoyed it.
    Quick question. I just planted an apple tree (Honey Crisp) and want to graft a couple of varieties – is it too late in the season at this point?

  • admin:

    TJ: I don’t know enough about you or your tree to tell you for sure. If the tree is dormant, you can graft using the technique I do… however, the scions must also come from dormant trees. Here (hardiness zone 5b), trees are awake, so grafting is out of the question. But in zone 4, it might not be too late (for those who garden in zone 4, I hope it is too late; enough with winter, already).

    I’d suggest that your tree would be happier if it had a full season to adapt to its new home. Let it get over its discomfort from being transplanted before you introduce a new source of stress.

    When the tree is growing full-tilt in the summer, you can try bud grafting or budding. I haven’t tried the technique, and from what I’ve read, it doesn’t sound quite as easy as the method I use. And, since you don’t see growth on a bud graft until next spring, you might as well wait until winter and make your grafts then.

  • Rauf:

    Thank you very much for this. Amazing……one can learn those things not possible some years ago without rising from his chair !! And thanks to the as well as the inventor of ‘WWW’.
    my question is why aren’t you use conventional budding knife for the purpose?

  • Rauf:

    I got the translation of your werk and got the answere of my question there. so please ignore my previous comment. thanks and best regards for this practical website.

  • admin:

    Rauf;

    Thank you for visiting! If you try grafting using this or any other method, I hope you have great success. Grafting remains one of my favorite gardening projects: it’s amazing to combine two or more organisms into one. Some of my grafted branches are now 6 or 7 inch diameter tree trunks. So cool!

    -Daniel

  • Karl:

    Hi,
    I have a broken apple tree leader. Can I graft it to mend it? Can I do this in November in North Bay Ontario area? How large in diameter can the stock splice be?

    Thanks,

    Karl

  • admin:

    Yes, you can repair an apple tree’s leader with a graft… or with multiple grafts. You can do this any time while the tree is dormant, but I prefer to wait until late winter… and not for any scientifically-proven reason. My sensibility is that grafting early gives a scion more time to shift after you set it than it has if you graft later (90 days for a bird to alight on it seems riskier than 10 days, for example). So, things should work if you graft in November, but my choice would be to wait until early March.

    As far as the diameter of the stock? There’s no maximum diameter, however for a larger branch (or stump in this case), you might use a different grafting method than what I describe in the post. I’ve grafted onto branches up to about 2 inches in diameter using this method, and I’ve seen it done on branches 3 or more inches across (splitting such a thick branch is challenging). If the trunk is already more than 2 inches in diameter, then there are probably many healthy branches. You might find it easier simply to cut the broken leader cleanly at an angle (so water runs off of the face easily), and let the tree produce its own leader over the next growing season. If the main trunk produces a new branch just below the break, that branch can become the leader; in three or four years, it will blend with the existing trunk and you might not even notice there was a break in the first place.

    Good luck. If you think of it, please drop by and let me know what you end up doing–and how it works out.

  • I love seeing the many different methods of grafting and how others accomplish the task. As you mentioned, it isn’t hard. My grafting tools for my last graft was a 1/4lb of Parrafin wax heated in a babyfood jar in a pot of water, on a kerosene heater. My knife was just a butcher knife and a roll of electrical tape to tap it into the trunk to split it. I was only grafting peach seedlings. My grafts were done with this knife for cutting the scion woods at an angle. I had the scions in the refrigerator where I had cut them a few days previously. I wrapped the cuts with the electrical tape snugly and covered it with wax with a paint brush. Hope my first 4 grafts take so I no longer have to hire others. I have tried the utility knife, just couldnt find it when the time arose. Thanks for the video. I just got into gardening a few years ago. I created a small greenhouse and got into any plants that are fun and easy to grow. Its just something that was originally started that my grandparents and I could do together, here today its all me, they abandoned ship because of the time it takes to take care of the many tasks. But I love it.

  • Nick Eberly:

    I would like to graft a tree for a Science Fair project. I have a red delicious and I would like to graft a green apple scion onto it. When should I get the scion from the green apple? Should I put the scion directly into the red apple?

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    Nick: You can make this type of graft as long as your apple trees are dormant. For me, this means I can graft until mid-to-late March… I tend to wait until late winter so my hands don’t freeze; we get many days above freezing in early March.

    You can cut scions as soon as the trees are dormant, and as long as you keep them from drying out or warming up, they should stay viable through the entire winter. Again: I like to harvest scions immediately before making the grafts. It works well to harvest scions from branches I remove while pruning. So, I typically prune and graft over a two-to-three week period starting near the end of February.

    If you’re doing a science fair project for school, be aware that your graft(s) may not show signs of life until late May. In their first season they can take a lot longer to start growing than terminal buds on native branches.

  • Patrick:

    I’ve just begun reading about grafting and became very excited about the possibility of making use of some ridiculous maple tree root systems… but the more I read the more it sounds like you need related species… I imagine a surgeon wouldn’t give a chimpanzee’s kidney for a human transplant…but I have to ask if anyone’s ever heard of or succeeded in grafting very dissimilar species… like beyond genus, family, or order even?
    (it’d be sweet to frankenstein grape vines into the crazy old maple!)
    Thanks, and I look forward to any comments and/or suggested literature.

  • Barry:

    Can you graft regular apple scions to a Crab Apple tree? I have a very vigorous crab apple tree that is useless and some struggling apple trees.

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