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Strategies For Grafting Fruit Trees

You’re looking at scions set in the split stump of a small branch that conveniently sprouted two seasons ago. This graft points into a space that could really use a low branch. Notice the leaf buds where the scions meet the stump. The most rapid growth occurs around leaf buds, so the design of the graft encourages the scion to grow into the stump.

It’s pruning and grafting time in my small kitchen garden, as it must be for nearly everyone in hardiness zone 6 and lower (north of zone 6). But time is running out. You should stop pruning when the leaf buds on your trees start to plump up in preparation to open, and that usually happens in early April.

My last five posts have been about grafting and pruning. I hope you’ve put the information to use. This post and the next one finish the series. This post presents my thinking about grafting onto an old established tree and the next post talks you through building a graft step-by-step. In my previous post, I described the equipment I use for grafting and introduced a video that takes you through the procedures I follow to graft red apple tree scions onto a green apple tree… so please read that one and watch the video if you want to get started immediately.

Harvesting Stock for Scions

You can harvest grafting stock all winter and store it until you’re ready to work. I harvest stock as I prune in late winter. When I can spend a half hour, I choose a problem to sort out in my red apple tree and take out a limb or two. Then I cut twelve-inch twigs off the ends of the small branches and put a bunch in a makeshift bucket.

If I have a lot of grafting to do, I focus on it almost exclusively until pruning season is drawing to a close. Then I stop grafting and make a mad dash through whatever pruning is left to do.

Graft onto Thin Branches

I like to graft onto very small branches—ones that are about a half inch in diameter. The technique, summarized, goes like this:

  1. Cut off the root branch and leave a stump.
  2. Split the stump across the middle, creating a one-to-three-inch crack.
  3. Whittle a scion and insert it on one end of the split.
  4. Whittle a second scion and insert it in the other end of the split.
  5. Wrap and waterproof the graft to protect it from the elements.

I’ve grafted into branches as wide as two inches across, but a branch that heavy requires one more tool than I usually carry (see box).

Graft to Larger Branches

The grafting technique I use is very easy to duplicate. Other methods require more precise cutting to align scions with root stock. There are special tools available that will cut the end of a scion and a socket on the root stock in which to insert the scion. Using such a tool, you can graft onto branches that are too large to split with a knife.

The technique I teach here works with any branch that you can split across the center with a knife. I’ve had luck with branches up to about 1.5 inches. The technique of cutting off the branch and then splitting it applies as well to these larger branches as to smaller ones. However, when you’re ready to insert scions, a utility knife is too flimsy to hold open the split on such a thick branch.

To deal with this problem, I put a flat-head screwdriver in my equipment bucket. To open the split, I work the tip of the screwdriver into the center of the branch—pointing straight into the split. I keep the screwdriver as far as I can from the bark ends of the opening, and use it as a lever to pry the branch open as I set scions in place (below).

When grafting into a thick branch—this one is about an inch across—I use a screwdriver to hold the split open as I place scions. Here, the scion isn’t all the way into the crack, but the bark aligns well with the bark of the stump. You can see that the scion will bulge out a little once it’s in position.

I cut a selected branch off square about two inches from where it attaches to the tree. I try to preserve the bark at the cut, so I use a fine-toothed saw for thicker branches, and sharp bypass pruners for thinner branches.

In an old, established tree, there may not be many conveniently-located small branches to receive grafts. This was the case with my ugly green apple tree. Knowing too little about grafting, I jumped in and started scions on large branches in poorly-chosen locations. I’d encourage you, instead, to prune your old problem trees for a season or two before you start grafting in them. Pruning encourages new growth, and in the second year, you’re likely to have many small, young candidate branches on which to graft stock from other trees.

Small Kitchen Garden Guidelines for Grafting

Here, in no particular order, are things I keep in mind as I work to convert my green apple tree into a red apple tree:

After three seasons, this graft is coming together nicely; it will probably produce fruit this season. It’s likely that this winter I’ll graft onto the branch that emerges just below the established graft.

Get the tree under control (if it’s not) by pruning according to the guidelines I presented in Prune Fruit Trees – 3: What and Why. If you’re dealing with a serious problem tree, you might put off grafting for a few seasons as you bring the tree around.

Prune before you graft. As you prune, you may need to climb your tree or at least stand on its branches. Worse, when you cut away old growth, it may fall through the branches. This activity could damage new grafts, so finish the season’s pruning on the host tree before you start grafting on it.

In a big, old tree, do lots of grafts. My grafting technique was poor when I started and I’d have about a 50% success rate. So, by doing 90 grafts in a season, I was confident I’d have 45 survivors. If you do ten grafts along a main branch and they all survive, crowding each other, you can prune some off in subsequent seasons.

Align bark. When I tell you that the bark on a scion must align with the bark in its host stump, I mean that the edges of the bark must align. The curve of the scion is tighter than that of the host stump, so the scion will bulge slightly out of the crack in which you set it.

Graft onto short stumps. Leave as little of the original wood as it practical; this reduces the chances of the host tree putting out competing branches that you’ll need to prune away later.

Graft to fill spaces. Especially on large, old trees, look for branches that come off the bottoms of larger branches, and graft onto those. Prune growth that comes off the tops of branches. This encourages the tree to develop a low profile and keep fruit within reach.

Graft to “repair” damaged branches. Sometimes, you’ll find damage on a branch you’d like to retain. Cutting the branch off behind the damage, and grafting into the shortened branch can save it while converting it to some other variety of growth.

Stay alert! Whatever knife you use for grafting needs to be extremely sharp. Don’t cut toward your body parts with it! Especially when you’re splitting a stump, don’t hold onto the stump or its parent branch. Sometimes the stump opens up and the knife slides through with little resistance. I did most of my grafting with only nine fingers one season because I got careless.

Please Chime In

Leave a note if you try grafting this season or if you have experience grafting your own plants. I’m very interested in sharing other techniques, so if you’ve tried some and want to write about them, get in touch and we can work out a guest post or a collaboration.

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29 Responses to “Strategies For Grafting Fruit Trees”

  • Robert:

    One of the best sites I have found for real life grafting info. Excellent Photo’s! I like your personal writing style.

  • admin:

    Robert;

    Thank you for visiting, and for your kind words.

    -Daniel

  • Wyn Sheryn:

    I have a wonderful 200yr old apple tree . Probably planted some time after the construction of our house in 1774. I do not know the name of the fruit. Cookers yellow with dark red flush. It stores well and the fruit becomes an ‘eater after a few months storage.

    The tree is dying. HAlf of it is rotten. But the remainder fruits well. I have been reading about scion grafting. Is this possible with such an old tree? Onto what stock should I graft. ANy help would be appreciated.
    Wyn Sheryn

    T

  • admin:

    This is a terrific question, and an excellent opportunity for you to benefit from grafting. The short answer to your question is: YES! Scion grafting will let you transfer material from your old, dying tree onto new roots that could last tens or hundreds of more years. As for the best root stock to use? The answer depends on where you live and what grows best in your area.

    I’ll write a post on this topic that will provide a little more information that could help with decisions about what to graft onto what. But the best advice I could give is for you to visit a local orchard or nursery and explain your situation to someone who grafts trees for a living. You may decide to hire a professional who could use your scions to do a “nursery” graft directly onto hardy root stock. In fact, you might find a local grower who would be willing to graft a dozen or so trees in exchange to keep half or three-quarters of them for the nursery. Many growers are interested in preserving diverse varieties of plants, and yours may be unusual.

  • Luke:

    Sad to hear about Wyn’s dieing apple tree. Scion grafting should be quite doable. Like any form of grafting you need to be sure to get a good clean cut which will lead to a solid join between the rootstock and scion. As was pointed out above, be sure to choose a good root stock that is appropirate to your area.

  • gail dugas:

    wow.. this is a great site.. very practical and clear..thank you so much for taking the time to put it together

  • admin:

    Thank you for your kind words.

  • Electroman:

    Hi everyone i’m new to apple tree. I bought a house near ottawa in canada and i know that pruning time is comming at the end of winter. The apple tree is very old may be 40-50 year old, he is about 35 feet tall and he is gone wild over time a need to be prunned. I’d like to have some advice to know where i should start because there is a lot of dead wood and a lot of sucker in the tree and the majority of apple that did grow was on the top portion of the tree and are completely impossible to reach so i’d like to reduce the height of the tree but there is so much branch in the tree and i dont know where to start????

    Here is a link with some picture of the tree so some help would be very appreciated Thank’s a lot

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MB2hWek3HzU

  • Electroman:

    I have a question for you, i’d like to graft some scion comming from the same tree on the main trunk so that they can be lower then the big upper branch, i’m not sure if it would work and what would be the best technique to use for grafting???
    The thing is that the tree is very old and damaged and even if the apple are small and in very bad shape, they were tasting very good, so i wound like to do some “renovation” on it to have bigger apple that i could reach.
    And is there something that i could do to repair those damage to the trunk??

    I like this Website it was very useful with my other apple tree!!

    Thank’s a lot for your help

  • admin:

    Electroman: Thanks for visiting. I can’t get real specific in a comment because it would take three or four lengthy blog posts to cover the basics of pruning. Happily, I already wrote those posts! I wrote a 3-part series about pruning beginning with a post titled Pruning Fruit Trees – 1 Those posts discuss reasons to prune, pruning priorities for “recovering” trees gone wild, and tools that are useful to have.

    Please have a look; there may be enough there to help you along.

    As for adding new branches lower on a tree? Sure, you can do it. One technique, bud grafting, involves removing a leaf bud from a branch along with a bit of extra bark around the bud. You make an incision in the bark where you want to graft this bud, and then slip the edges of the grafting stock’s bark under the bark at the incision on the tree’s trunk. Again, to do the technique justice would require a lengthy blog post.

    I encourage you to do a Google search for “fruit tree grafting techniques” or “grafting apple trees” or simply “grafting fruit trees.” There are many articles about a variety of grafting techniques, some of which let you add branches where there aren’t any.

    Good luck. I’d love to hear how things work out, so please drop by next fall and share your experiences… and perhaps for a few more autumns after that!

    -Daniel

  • Brad:

    Hi,
    I’d like to start grafting an assortment of varieties of cherry to a well established cherry in our yard. I have been looking for a source of cherry scions online and in our local nurseries (north of Toronto, ON) without any luck. Are you aware of any mailorder sources for fruit tree scions?
    Thanks for any help you can offer and thanks for creating a great resource!
    Brad

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    Brad: So sorry about the delayed reply. I’m afraid I’ve been very ill and couldn’t sit up long enough to focus on the computer. My best advice would be to find local cherry growers–a big commercial orchard or several small orchards–and inquire about collecting branches during their pruning season. If they prune in winter, they produce a huge amount of material you could shape into scions. I can’t imagine why an orchard wouldn’t give a few clippings away to a home grower with such modest designs. As a bonus, orchard operators might be happy to let you watch as they graft their own trees to repair problems or improve production.

  • mahoob:

    hi iam mahboob from Afghansitan right now live in iran we hope you help me some free patterns of tree grafts any kinds i wand rescue the life of poor farmars in Afghansitan thanks on yours tell my
    hello all you friend have you happy time mahboobhewad@yahoo.com

  • I want to graft a old Brambley? cooking apple (about 100 years old) onto a young tree in a different garden
    Will any young apple tree do and how do I pick a tree that will not grow into a giant
    Regards
    Bernard
    Ireland

  • lovely informative website and in plain english also no tech talk
    Can you advise me on how to take graft stock from a very old brambley ? cooking apple tree which is over 100 years old and what type of host tree is required to ensure it does not grow into a giant like its parent
    Regards to all
    Bernard
    Tipperary
    Ireland

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    Bernard Lennon – So sorry I’ve been slow to respond; have been quite ill during the month of February. I hope you found answers to your questions. Truly thorough answers would deserve a blog post of their own. Here are a few thoughts:

    1. The grafting method I’ve documented in my blog and on Youtube is (in my opinion) the easiest to learn and master on your own. However, if you want to create a new tree using a scion from the bramley and root stock of a different variety, you should either learn to do a nursery graft, or take a handful of scions to a nursery and have them do the grafts for you. I explained in a post titled How to Make a Fruit Tree for a Small Kitchen Garden how a nursery assembles trees out of desirable fruiting stock and hearty root stock… which leads me to the second thought:

    2. Find a local grower that can graft your scions onto “dwarfing” root stock. Dwarfing stock comes from apple trees whose habit is compact–even very small. Your bramley scions may want to grow into giants, but if their root stock doesn’t feed them enough, they’ll grow smaller much the way bonsai trees remain small (with bonsai, you trim the roots to limit their ability to support a large tree). Generally, large habit trees on dwarfing root stock result in small-to-medium-sized trees, but the fruits tend to be full-sized for whatever the fruiting stock normally produces.

    3. In case you’ve any doubts about harvesting scions, make sure you cut branches while the tree is dormant–that’s likely to be well into March. If you take about the last 12 inches of the youngest branches, there will be adequate stock for a professional to create the nursery grafts for you. I encourage you to locate a nursery to do the grafting for you BEFORE you harvest scions. Of course, if you’ll be attempting your own grafts, get started as soon as you have the rooted dwarfing stock on hand.

    4. Finally: you can graft your bramley onto any other apple tree. I’ve had greatest success when I graft spur-fruiting varieties onto other spur-fruiting varieties. When I graft spur-fruiting varieties onto tip-fruiting varieties, fewer grafts succeed. I haven’t yet grafted tip-fruiting varieties onto spur-fruiting trees.

    I wish you good luck. Now many years since I started grafting, I maintain that there has been no gardening project nearly as satisfying as coaxing red apple production from my green apple tree.

  • Just getting into grafting, taking cuttings for rooting, etc. Nice site and lots of good information in one locations.
    Kudos!

  • Jannie:

    I do not reply to anything, but, boy i sure would.! : i have to scream out of the bottom of my gut: you are good man.! Jeepers.! I have been grafting all my life but you really presents it so, so, … (what adjative to use:) SUPERBLY.! thanx an greetings. Jannie, South Africa.

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    Jannie: Thanks so much for your kinds words. Do you blog about what you grow? Post videos? I’d love to have a look at what you grow!

  • Deetle:

    I too am trying to save a very old dying apple tree by grafting to rootstock. Of my 10 spring grafts, 3 have survived the summer and I am unsure what to do with them for the winter. I have the grafted rootstocks in nursery pots so they could be placed up on a deck out of the reach of nibbling deer (learned that the hard way). How should I winter them over in pots? (inside garage? outside covered with straw?) I’m guessing they need to go dormant but since they are in pots will they be damaged by freezing temperatures? I am located in New Jersey. Thanks in advance for your advice!

  • Laura:

    About to attempt my first graft, with the goal of replacing an ugly ornamental pear with something more lovely. Your site is hugely helpful! Thank you! Can you answer one lingering question? Can I graft a fruiting pear onto an ornamental root stock?

  • […] How To Grow Multiple Different  Fruits On One Tree […]

  • Shaker:

    What do you use to wrap and water proof?

  • Suzanne:

    Hi, does the new graft branch have to have bark on it or do I take the bark off?rnThanks very much and hope you are feeling better!

  • Ray:

    Great article, informative and very well written, easy to understand and I thank you for your information I have had many successes with your grafting methods ! I have done grafting other ways but this by far was the easiest and had the best success rate. Thank you again

  • Alan:

    I live in Hawaii and would like to know what options are available for cutting a scion when the trees do not go dormant. If I cut some of the newer growth and trim off the leaves will it work as a scion? Thanks

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    I can only guess about how you’d graft native Hawaiian trees… or, I suppose, Google. For people in our area who wish to graft in summer – which would be equivalent to your year-round situation – a technique called bud grafting is effective. To do a bud graft, you slice a leaf bud along with surrounding bark from a young branch. You graft it onto another tree by slitting young bark to create a pocket. Then you slip the bark portion of the prepared leaf bud into the pocket. You can find decent bud grafting videos on Youtube. I haven’t tried this technique, but it looks fairly straightforward. Good luck!

  • […] out. You should stop pruning when the leaf buds on your trees start to plump up in preparation to open, and that usually happens in early […]

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