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Posts Tagged ‘fruit trees’

Pear Trees, Peach Trees, Apple Trees, & Rhubarb in Spring

The pear trees I planted in November of 2008 have brilliant color combinations in early spring. I might be happy if the tree always looked like this. Then again, I wouldn’t mind harvesting my first pears from them this season. The trees are still small, so I must be cautious: I’ll thin severely a week or two after the petals drop but I’ll watch for signs of stress. It may be prudent to give the trees one more season before burdening them with full-grown fruits.

My small kitchen garden has had a most miserable spring. Heck, because of all the rain, my small kitchen garden is a miserable spring! Water draining off the hill to the south has pooled in my planting bed making it impossible for me to do anything with it besides complain.

Fortunately, other parts of my yard drain more quickly than my planting bed does and for those areas, spring progresses. My fruit trees have already started to flower, and in a few days there will be blossoms on every branch. At the same time, my new rhubarb patch is doing well—that is, according to the residential rhubarb inspector who thoroughly examined the new growth despite inclement weather.

There’s not much you can do with fruit trees while they’re in bloom. This is the time to leave them alone so pollinators can work unhindered; I’m pretty sure I saw bees wearing SCUBA gear as they worked the peach flowers. Enjoy the colors and the aromas of your fruit tree blossoms, but don’t do maintenance until the petals drop. Then, it’s important to treat against pests or your produce could end up as bug food and insect baby incubators.

My old, extremely beat-up pear tree sports clusters of white blossoms. Considering the huge void in the tree’s trunk, it looks impressively hardy year-after-year. If half the flowers produce fruit, it will be a bountiful harvest.

 

The peach tree that came with our house fell over at least three years ago. The trunk suffered a “green twig fracture.” That is, it broke part way through, but a section of it held and bent like a hinge. That hinge of bent wood nourishes the entire tree, and the tree continues to produce fruit. There are plenty of blossoms on this challenged peach tree, so I’m hoping for a decent harvest to make jelly and pies.

 

The first apple blossom I could find among hundreds of ready-to-pop buds has some type of insect damage. I hope this doesn’t portend hard times to come. Stink bugs, I hear, can be hard on apples, and I live very near where the stink bug invasion began in the United States. I will be vigilant.

 

The residential rhubarb inspector examined my new rhubarb patch and seemed to approve. There’s soil, there are floppy leafy things, and there are stick-like stems. What’s not to like? I had to drag the rhubarb inspector away before she started chomping my plants.

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Early Fruit Blossoms in my Small Kitchen Garden

This spring’s early start has peach blossoms busting out all over with pear and apple blossoms anxious to pop. When a fruit tree gets and early start, it often loses fruit when more typical weather returns.

Every year that fruit trees have graced my small kitchen garden, I’ve faced an uneasy springtime vigil: Will my fruit blossoms survive?

Fruit trees produce blossoms in response to increasing warmth. By late April, the temperature has usually been high enough for enough days that we get a dramatic display of white, pink, and purple.

Early Spring Kills Small Kitchen Garden Fruit

Two phenomena are particularly distressing to any fruit-grower: a late freeze, and an early start.

While the pear blossoms have held off longer than the peach blossoms, this cluster will probably pop within two days. Meteorologists predict a freeze in two days. Will my peaches and pears survive?

Late freeze—In some years, we see the typical gradual warming that brings on the blossoms in late April. However, with all those gorgeous blossoms on the trees, a cold front drops out of the north and temperatures plummet below freezing.

The opened blossoms freeze, killing the fruit. The kitchen gardener loses out.

Early start—In some seasons, the air temperature rises in March, staying relatively steady for several weeks. Fruit trees react by budding up and putting out blossoms weeks earlier than is typical. If the “unseasonable” warmth continues, there isn’t a problem. However, usually an early start leads to an abrupt return of “seasonal” temperatures. This means sub-freezing nights that can kill fruiting blossoms and destroy hope for a fruit harvest.

Edgy Vigil in my Small Kitchen Garden

During an early start, I can’t help but monitor the bud clusters on my fruit trees. As long as the buds remain tightly closed, even a deep freeze isn’t going to hurt them. When the clusters start to loosen up, I become particularly concerned. Will blossoms pop early this year? If they do, will a nighttime freeze exterminate my fruit crop?

So far, my apple trees are keeping a tight grip on their petals, but the warm weather will almost certainly make them let go in early April. It’s more common for them to wait until late April. That two-to-three week difference could make the difference between a bumper crop of fruit, or a very poor harvest.

This year the vigil started in mid March. It has been crazy warm, and the trees are responding. In fact, my peach trees are in full bloom, pear trees are close on their heels, and my apple trees—the late bloomers of my fruit trees—are threatening to pop. Experience tells me this is very, very bad. Heck, last year we had a killing frost in lat May!

I’m enjoying the gorgeous fruit blossoms, but I’m not happy about them. If Mother Nature blankets us with cold air, there may be nothing to harvest this summer and fall. While I continue my vigil, there’s nothing I can do about the outcome. I don’t need the fruit harvest to survive, so I’ll merely be disappointed if there’s a killing freeze. I can’t imagine the anxiety of a commercial fruit grower when faced with such an early start.

Subscribe to Your Small Kitchen Garden Vlog

Your Small Kitchen Garden blog has introduced a video blog titled Visit with the Gardener, in which I share snippets of what’s going on in my garden and/or kitchen. I try to keep the videos under two minutes and provide either useful tips and techniques – or encouragement – for you to try new things in your kitchen gardens.

Please have a look, and jump over to Youtube to subscribe to my channel. Here’s the link to my channel: Your Small Kitchen Garden Vlog. And here’s an example of a recent post on the vlog. Please enjoy:

Other useful information about fruit blossoms:

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Small Kitchen Garden VLOG

Here at Your Small Kitchen Garden, I’m always experimenting. Usually, those experiments have to do with fitting more vegetable plants into the same space I planted last year. They’re also about ways to preserve produce and to prepare fruits and vegetables fresh from my garden or the local farmers’ market.

Today I’m starting a new experiment. I’m inviting readers into my garden, my “orchard,” my larder, and my kitchen for brief visits to see or hear what I’m up to. These visits aren’t so much about “how-to” instruction as they are about “what-to.” In other words, I’m going to tell you what I’m doing for my garden, and encourage you to think about doing the same—or similar—things for your garden.

Visit with the Gardener

I’m starting a video blog called Visit with the Gardener at Your Small Kitchen Garden Blog. Each video post will be short—generally from one to two minutes. In the video descriptions, I’ll try to include links that lead to relevant posts in case you want the “how to” to go along with the “what.”

Please join me in my Small Kitchen Garden to see what I’m doing. Hop over to Youtube and subscribe to my channel—I’m Cityslipper over there: Cityslipper on Youtube.

Here’s the first installment. It’ll give you an idea of how lazy I can be. Oh, and if you want to talk about art, I don’t groove much on the camera angle either… but I really wanted you to be able to see the pear tree, and this captured it:

 

I found a few other references to Vlogs about gardening:

  • 2009 Garden Vlog 4, Planting Corn | Growing Peas Made Easy – 2009 Garden Vlog 4, Planting Corn • How To Grow Corn. by admin. Like the title says:) Video Rating: 4 / 5. Tags: 2009, Corn, Garden, Planting, Vlog. 25 comments. No ping yet. theblackstarorder says: …

  • [WATCH]: Moms SQFT Victory Garden – VLog Day 23 | ORGANIC GARDEN … – Watching the plants grow. Great soil mixture! Why it pays to experiment, sometimes. Mel’s Mix 1/3 vermiculite 1/3 peat moss 1/3 compost I used the following, Sticking pretty good to Mel’s mixing ratio. Triple processed top soil Moisture …

  • GARDEN VLOG. | – GARDEN VLOG. Y’ALL, this was my FIRST vlog. Video blog. Whatever. I only did it because Emily was on a mission last night to inspire people to make one and I guess it worked. It isn’t as bad as I expected it to be. …

 

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Small Kitchen Garden Fruit Tree Update

Back in November when I planted them, the roots of my young fruit trees looked a lot like this one. Still, all three tree, two pear trees and a sour cherry tree, are growing vigorously.

Last autumn, I reported in Your Small Kitchen Garden about my decision and subsequent effort to plant fruit trees in the fall. Only after ordering trees from an on-line nursery had it occurred to me to seek customer reviews of the nursery. The reviews I found made me a bit edgy, and I wrote about it in a post titled Aggravation in my Small Kitchen Garden.

Still, I was pleased with the arrival of my order, and with the condition of the plants when I unwrapped them. In a post titled New Pear Trees in my Small Kitchen Garden, I shared the story of planting them.

More Angst About Summerstone Nursery

My post about Summerstone Nursery (the Aggravation post) has drawn a few comments from obviously unhappy customers. I don’t doubt these people have had bad experiences, and I stand by my earlier comments: I suspect there are exponentially more satisfied Summerstone customers than there are angry ones. I happen to be one of the satisfied customers.

Consider the photograph from last November’s post (above, right), showing the bare root of the sour cherry tree I planted then. I imagine a large number of people would say that this tree has no roots; it looks, after all, like a stick. The roots of all of my new bare root trees were similar to this one.

The blossoms on my new moonglow pear tree are a beautiful soft pink. The leaves of the plant are a greenish purple. It will be a bit of a wait, but I’m looking forward to seeing this in bloom once it’s full-grown.

Now have a look at the gorgeous blossoms and purple/green leaves growing from my Moonglow pear this spring (left). The sour cherry tree and my Bartlett pear tree aren’t as sensational, but all three fruit trees have produced new branches and leaves and are growing vigorously. (I have no photo of the sour cherry tree because it’s inside a makeshift tree tube to protect it from rodents and cutworms.)

The pecan trees look dead, but I can’t blame that on Summerstone Nursery: a few days after I planted them, a wild animal gnawed several inches off of each one. My subsequent efforts to protect them from further damage stressed them, and I think they’re not coming back (though I continue to hope).

Summerstone or Not?

Based on my experience with Summerstone, I would buy from them again. Here’s my rationale:

  • Their prices are low; replacing dead plants at half price is inconvenient, but it would bring the total cost up to what you’d pay for your first purchase at other on-line nurseries.
  • They have variety that many on-line nurseries don’t.
  • All my interactions with them have been satisfying.

Would I recommend that you buy from Summerstone? No. Don’t buy from Summerstone Nursery unless you live near them and can pick up your plants in person. Don’t buy from any nursery unless you can pick up your plants from them in person.

You could learn a lot from visiting a nursery or garden store, and when you’re there, you can select specific plants with the help of experienced professionals. The advantages of buying locally in-person are so great that I can think of only one reason to buy plants on-line: Buy plants from on-line nurseries only if you can’t find what you want at a store near you.

My Fruit Tree Prognosis

I’m confident my two new pear trees and my new cherry tree will be fine… assuming I take care of them properly. I won’t be harvesting fruit from them for several years because they’re all under two feet tall. Still, I’m pleased with how this fruit tree project is going.

 

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Water Small Kitchen Garden Perennials

There wasn’t much “structure” to the root systems of my young fruit trees when I planted them in the fall. They’ll need plenty of water as they come out of dormancy this spring.

I’m poised to plant my small kitchen garden, having finished late-winter pruning and grafting in my fruit trees. I’m poised, but holding. March teased early with some very warm days, but then plunged into barely-tolerable cold.

The soil has thawed, so a more rugged gardener could have planted peas, lettuce, spinach, and other cold weather crops by now. I tend to wait until April for those, and sometimes am simply too busy to plant them until late April. But this year there’s something else that’s very important for me to do in my garden: water young perennials.

Fall Planting Time Bombs

Back in mid-Autumn, I argued in this blog that you should plant fruit trees in the fall (this goes for most perennials, but if they’re not going to feed you, don’t waste your energy planting them). I shared my experiences of trying to find fruit trees at local nurseries, I explained that I ended up buying via mail-order, and I showed how I planted my young trees in mid-November.

Among the advantages I listed for planting perennials in autumn: you don’t have to water, and you can omit fertilizer. Dormant plants aren’t demanding.

Come spring, those young perennials emerge from dormancy and require the creature comforts you denied them in the fall. If you had plenty of rain or snow over the winter, your soil will thaw and be moist; your perennials will be happy. However, if your neighborhood is emerging from a dry winter, your perennials may awaken to desert-like conditions. This is especially bad for the young ones.

What’s more, even if your ground thaws wet, you need to make sure the young plants don’t dry out along with the soil. Unless you’re experiencing substantial seasonal rainfall—or massive snow melt—you should start watering when the ground thaws.

How Much Water?

In early spring, water deeply once or twice a week (again, don’t water if Mother Nature is doing a good job of it). As plants (any plants—not just the perennials you planted in autumn) emerge from dormancy (you see leaf buds plump up), increase your watering to once daily unless the soil is obviously saturated.

When you plant perennials, you should soak them till the soil can’t hold more water. This helps you work out air pockets and get the soil up against young roots. Subsequent watering needn’t saturate the soil. Your goal is to keep everything damp, not to maintain a mud pit around your tree.

When leaves emerge and you see vigorous growth, cut back the water to two or three times a week, and keep it up until fall. Skip watering if there’s a decent rainstorm.

Especially if you planted bare root trees in the fall, they need a lot of moisture in their first year to help them develop strong root systems. But temper daily watering: the point of planting in autumn was to reduce the amount of water you had to provide. Especially in March and April, the soil may stay wet for several days between watering.

Fertilizer?

It’s good to provide fertilizer as your young fall plantings wake up in the spring. Best of all, mulch with compost (but don’t let the compost rest against the plant). If that’s not an option, provide a light feed of 10-10-10 chemical fertilizer.

For my older fruit trees, I’d always driven holes in the ground with a crow bar, and then filled the holes with fertilizer. A friend who runs an orchard told me he prefers to broadcast fertilizers on the surface and let them dissolve into the soil. For young trees, just dust fertilizer on the loose soil around the tree trunk—a small handful at most. With all the watering, it’ll soak in quickly.

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Making a Graft in Your Small Kitchen Garden

A makeshift bucket of twigs cut from pruned branches hangs in the green apple tree I’m converting into a red apple tree.

For the past many posts, Your Small Kitchen Garden has focused on grafting and pruning apple trees. Two posts back, we looked at equipment I use to graft red apple stock onto my green apple tree—and I introduced a video that shows me assembling a graft. In the last post, I listed guidelines I follow as I choose which branches will host scions in the green apple tree. This post provides written, step-by-step instructions for assembling a graft. Though I’m talking about apple trees, this technique will work on just about any deciduous fruit tree.

I’ll assume that you’ve been pruning apple trees and have several branches from which to harvest grafting stock. Make scions from last year’s growth. Last year’s growth is at the ends of the smallest branches. Last year was very dry here, so branches grew only three or four inches beyond the previous year’s growth. In wet years, my apple branches have grown a foot or more. In any case, cut and save a dozen or so twelve-inch twigs off the ends of your pruned branches, and put these in a bucket you can hang from a branch.

If there are no fruiting spurs on the section of branch you harvest, you’re probably looking at last year’s growth. If you can spot a scaly ring in the bark, it most likely marks where the terminal bud spent last winter; everything after it should be last year’s growth.

Haul the twig bucket, a gear bucket, and a pruning saw up in the tree and perch so you can easily get both hands on the host branch without falling out of the tree. I like to work on a step ladder which provides a steady base and reduces my need to climb the tree. Standing on branches erodes the bark, and increases my chances of damaging small twigs and existing grafts.

7 Steps of Grafting Apple Trees

Cut the host branch—Make as clean a cut as you can, perpendicular to the branch. Leave a stump just two or three inches long. For very thin branches (a half inch is about the thinnest it’s practical to graft onto), I might use bypass pruners or loppers, but in most cases I use a fine-toothed saw so as not to crush the branch or its bark. With a saw, cut about three quarters of the way through from one side, then remove the saw from the cut, flip it, and finish the cut from the other side. I’ve seen better pruning saws than I own cut cleanly through a branch in a few strokes without a back cut… the quality of your tools will influence your technique.

Split the host branch—Use a sharp knife, align the blade across the center of the stump, and gently rock it while pressing it into the cut end. I try to split along a line that’s perpendicular to the trunk branch from which the stump grows. For a narrow stump, make the split about and inch long. For a heavier stump, it might take a three-inch split to provide enough play to get scions into the crack.

I liked this small branch as the host for a graft; it had a gaping hole in the bark that I was able to remove, and set a graft just blow it. The bypass pruners deformed the stump a little, but I’m confident the graft will take anyway. Notice that I split the stump across the limb to which it’s attached.

Make a scion—Whittle a scion from the harvested grafting stock. Start at a leaf bud three-to-seven inches from the terminal bud of a twig. Whittle a wedge starting at that leaf bud and getting narrower toward the bottom of the scion. The wedge—from leaf bud to the end of the scion—should be about a half inch long (see photos).

Start whittling on one side of a leaf bud, but make sure you leave the bud intact. A finished scion tapers for about a half to three quarters of an inch from the bottom leaf bud down to a chisel point. The leaf bud will sit about even with the end of the stump and will point out from the side of the stump.

Insert the scion into the stump—Spring the crack open and work the whittled wedge into one side of it. The leaf bud at the top of the wedge should point out, and end up aligned with the top of the stump. I use the point of my utility knife to spring the stump open. If you do this, be cautious; when you flex it too much, the knife blade will break. For thicker host branches, I sometimes use a screwdriver to hold the crack open as I insert scions (explained in my last post, Strategies for Grafting Fruit Trees). Make sure the edges of the bark of the scion align with the edges of the bark along the crack in the host stump.

I use the tip of my utility knife to flex the stump open as I insert the first scion into the crack. The first scion usually holds the stump open enough that I can easily insert the second scion. Aligning the bark at this point is crucial.

Add a second scion—Whittle a scion to match the first one and work it into the other end of the crack in the host stump. Chances are, you won’t need to flex the crack open this time as the first scion will hold it wide enough for the second scion to fit. You may need to readjust both scions several times to make sure their bark aligns with the host stump’s bark.

Wrap the graft—I once bought and messed with grafting tape, but didn’t have any luck with it. However, while creating this series on grafting, I learned that you can coat a new graft with wax, then wrap it with grafting tape to protect it from the elements. This requires heating the wax which seems inconvenient, especially on a cold day… but I’ve never tried it, so don’t let my inexperience keep you from finding a better approach.

I use cotton twine and tree wound dressing. Tie the twine around the stump at the bottom of the crack (I use a clove hitch, but any knot will do). Then, wrap the twine around the stump, working toward the leaf buds on the scions, and laying each successive loop of twine tightly against the preceding loop. Get the last loop of twine as close to the end of the stump as you can without running it up onto the leaf buds of the scions. Finish it off by running the end of the twine through a loop, pulling it tight, and cutting off excess twine.

I tie a clove hitch at the bottom of the split, then catch the end of the twine in the first loop or two as I work my way up the stump.

Waterproof the wrap—Use a water-based tree wound dressing, and coat the cotton twine wrapping. Also, dab tree wound dressing on the end of the stump so no wood shows through. It’s ok if dressing runs into the crack and coats the bottom leaf buds on the scions; make sure you coat all the twine and the stump’s split end.

I use a water-based sealant called Treekote tree wound dressing made byWalter E Clark & Son in Orange, Connecticut. Don’t use the stuff to dress wounds left by pruning, but waterproof your graft with it to keep things from drying out while the scions knit themsleves to the host stump.

When Your Fruit Tree Grafts are Done

A successful graft wakes up more slowly than the rest of your small kitchen garden. There may be leaves on the rest of the tree for a month or longer before your scions show signs of life. Usually, the first change appears in a scion’s terminal bud; if that opens up, the graft has taken and is likely to knit up with the stump.

Once leaves emerge, remove the protective wrap from the stump. I use the razor-sharp utility knife to slice part way through the coils of twine without going as deep as the bark. This cuts through the loop of twine I tucked under at the end of the wrap and I can unravel the whole wrap from there. Unwrap gently. Sometimes the twine sticks to the tender bark; if you work slowly, you can unstick it without doing too much damage.

 

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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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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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Pruning and Grafting

My small kitchen garden is coming out of dormancy a few weeks too early for my taste. I usually prune my fruit trees through March, and graft from one tree onto another throughout the month. With temperatures in the first week of March going over 60 degrees Fahrenheit, I’m concerned the buds on my fruit trees will plump up, and I’ll run out of time.

At Least Prune in Your Small Kitchen Garden

Pruning is critical to the long-term health and manageability of your fruit trees, so get it done before the sap runs. By pruning while the tree is dormant, you give the exposed green wood a chance to dry out before sap is moving through it. Just a few days’ drying is enough to seal a wound and keep it from leaking sap that could attract insects and nurture molds and microorganisms.

My past three posts have been about pruning, and I’m putting together a post about grafting. While working on these, I found a most curious growth in one of my apple trees and thought I’d share it.

A branch emerges from the trunk near the bottom-left of the photo and runs diagonally up and right. Where it crosses another branch, the two have grown together. Grafting exploits this natural malleability, letting you easily attach branches from one tree to another where they bond to their new home.

Apparently, two seasons ago a young branch rested in the crotch of a second young branch. Even though I had attempted some grafts on the same trunk, I hadn’t noticed this crossing of existing branches; in my series on pruning, I encourage you to eliminate such crossings to prevent damage to bark and competition for light.

As you can see in the photo, the two branches have grown together. I have no use for either branch—this is a tree that, through grafting, I’m converting from a green apple tree into a red apple tree (I’ll explain in my next post). Both branches are green apple tree stock. Because of their novelty, I may leave them, though I’d rather all the tree’s energy went into producing red apples.

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Prune Fruit Trees – 3: What and Why

Look to Learn

When you’re learning something, it’s useful to look at examples of what you’re trying to achieve. I encourage you to do that with pruning: find a local commercial orchard and ask for a tour with emphasis on the trees. Do this in March and you may get to see a professional pruner in action. If you can’t get a tour, at least get where you can examine some trees. Well-tended trees can be very distinctive when they’ve dropped their leaves. Seeing how professionals shape their trees may inspire your approach to pruning.

A most amazingly frigid cold descended on my small kitchen garden yesterday. That’s actually helpful because the last week of February felt like spring, and I need a few more weeks of winter; I’m still pruning and grafting in my fruit trees.

If you’ve been following Your Small Kitchen Garden blog, I’ve been sharing with you thoughts about pruning apple trees… and most other deciduous trees. In the past two posts, we’ve laid the groundwork for pruning. In the first, we talked about reasons to prune your fruit trees, and offered some very broad guidelines. In the second post, we looked at pruning tools, and discussed the basic technique for cutting branches shorter or altogether removing them. This post offers describes what to prune and why.

A Pruning Operations Checklist


A branch in my pear tree snapped under the weight of fruit. The scar is a portal for disease and insects, so I’ll prune it away this winter. Notice the many healthy branches that are competing to take the place of the broken branch. I’ll prune most of those away as well.

Here, vaguely in order of priority, are the guidelines I follow when pruning apple trees… or peach trees or pear trees. These guidelines will work as well with all temperate climate deciduous trees:

1. If your tree is a chimera (root stock and fruiting stock grafted together), don’t prune off everything above the graft. Root stock may grow into a viable tree that even produces fruit, but not likely fruit you’d want to eat. So, if any branches emerge from the root stock (below the grafting scar), cut them off; undesirable root stock growth will compete with grafted stock.

You almost certainly won’t be able to identify the original graft on an older tree, but if the tree puts out young branches within a foot of the ground, they should go. Sadly, new, young branches sprouting low on the trunk of an old tree are a clue that the tree is unhealthy.

Finding Tools

Visit the Small Kitchen Garden Store to find all the tools you need for pruning.

2. Prune all dead wood as closely as possible to live wood. If you find a live branch that has a lot of dead branches protruding from it, look for health issues with the live branch: Is the bark cracking? Is there obvious rot? Has the branch been bent severely? Are there holes in the bark? If there are a lot of dead branches on a live branch, the live branch is probably dying. You don’t need to remove it (yet), but do so if removing it fits easily with the rest of your pruning plan.

3. Prune away branches that have splits, cracks through the bark, peeling bark, or obvious rot. Fungus is a sign that a branch is only partly alive—but a healthy branch may have algae, moss, and even lichens growing on it.

Three branches of about the same diameter run nearly parallel. Branches that emerge from these intertwine, competing for sunshine. If these branches all emerge from the same “parent” branch, it makes sense to remove two of them. If they emerge from separate parents, removing competing sub-branches and shortening one or two of the larger branches shown may be the better choice.

4. Prune to rid trees of branches that touch each other—or that are growing into the same space as other branches. Touching branches rub in the wind, making holes in the bark. They might also trap water that promotes rot and attracts insects. Branches growing into the same space compete for sunlight. Generally, preserve the healthier branch, and remove the weaker one.

5. Don’t make one branch do the work of several. It’s an easy mistake to make: You find three or four main branches whose lesser branches grow into the same space. Removing all but one of the main branches would simplify the tree. However, it would be better to preserve the main branches and prune lesser branches from them. This encourages new growth from the main branches, and might produce lesser branches to fill the tree out in other directions.

6. Prune branches from above to let light onto the branches below… and to let light into the middle of the tree. A tree north of the equator may need more severe pruning of its southern branches as those shade lower branches on the north side of the tree. My apple trees are on a north-facing hill, so the lower, northern branches see little sunlight. While the trees grow generally up, newer growth tends to lean southward, and those low, northern branches curve around the rest of the tree.

Here’s my best apple tree with a six-foot step ladder for scale. The tree is out of control; I’ll never be able to reach apples in those crazy high branches. Notice that the tree seems to reach out over the stepladder with only low branches on the opposite side of the trunk. Yes: the stepladder is on the south side of the tree. New growth follows the sun, particularly when you don’t prune each season.

7. Prune off branches that offend your sense of aesthetics or practicality. What do I mean? Aesthetics: does the tree suite your eye? Does it fit into your small kitchen garden’s landscape? Does it block a view you wish you had? Practicality: I hate ducking under branches when I mow the lawn; I don’t want my fruit trees to branch in the first six feet of trunk. You may not care about ducking, but does the tree block a window or shade a planting bed? Once you’ve taken care of the big problems (which may require a season or two of pruning), move on to shaping the trees so they make sense to you.

8. Don’t cut really thick branches if you can avoid it, and especially resist cutting the tree’s leader. A big scar stresses the tree and makes it more susceptible to disease. Cutting large branches may start the tree into decline.

9. Don’t paint pruning cuts with sealant or paint. These may prevent the tree from healing properly.

10. Don’t prune within one-year-old growth. The last few inches of a tree’s branches are the previous season’s delicate growth. Cut off some of it, and the rest might dry out and die. To shorten a branch, cut farther down the branch in the 2nd or 3rd year’s section. If there are spurs sticking out from the branch beyond the pruning point, you’re cutting within older growth.

Breaking Rules

Especially when you’re recovering an old, neglected tree, all of these guidelines come into play. But guideline number 8 will give you the greatest challenge. Three of the five fruit trees that came with our house were simply too messy; I cut several large branches to limit their height and encourage spreading and enlarging of the lower branches.

Caution When Shortening

When you cut a branch shorter to promote new growth, leave at least three leaf buds or branches between the cut and the point where the branch is attached. This gives the branch more chances to thrive; if you leave just one bud and it dies, the branch will likely go with it.

I did the most severe pruning in a tree I didn’t like. My thinking? If I kill it, I have one more excuse to cut it down. In that tree, I cut out the leader and several side branches that had grown as thick as the leader and ran parallel to it. These were five- and six-inch diameter trunks.

Most of the large cuts I made have healed well. However, the most severe cut didn’t heal, and the wood is rotting a hole into the tree. The tree isn’t in great health, and I expect it won’t outlive me (knock wood)… though I’m trying to engineer it for longer life.

If you’re going to cut such large branches:

1. Cut side branches close to the tree’s trunk with the saw blade running parallel to the trunk.

2. Cut the leader just above several healthy branches that can compete to replace the leader once it’s gone.

3. When cutting a vertical branch—particularly a very thick one, cut at a bias so you don’t leave a horizontal surface; water should run easily off of the newly-exposed wood.

It’s best to shape a tree when it’s young and keep it under control so you never have to cut branches more than an inch or two in diameter.

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