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Posts Tagged ‘graft’

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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