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 Post subject: Apple Grafting
PostPosted: Tue Aug 02, 2016 2:54 am 
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I've been trying my luck with grafting apple trees.

Last year I went to a class on grafting apples put on by University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service and taught by a local apple grower. It was a good class, and I got to try my hand at grafting four trees. The method I was taught was whip and tongue grafting, which is good for grafting small rootstock trees ("whips") to pieces of scionwood of roughly the same diameter.

Scionwood refers to a piece of last years growth cut from a mature apple tree. By grafting the piece of scionwood to another apple tree, you have cloned the tree you took the scionwood from. Apple trees have a lot of genetic variability, so by cloning an existing tree you can be more certain of what kind of apple you will end up with. (It should be noted that even though you can't be sure what you'll get when growing from seed, it actually isn't that uncommon to get a decent apple if you start with at least one good parent.)

If cloning gets you the kind of tree you want, why bother grafting? Why not just root cuttings? Many apple cultivars have been selected for things like flavor and storage life rather than vigor and hardiness. A trees roots are actually one of its most sensitive and vulnerable parts, so selecting a rootstock variety that provides more hardiness and disease resistance can be a good idea. It doesn't matter if the rootstock tree doesn't produce good apples, as they will be coming from the scion that has been grafted to it. Another reason many people graft onto rootstock is that the rootstock influences the height of the tree. Rootstock grown from seed ("seedling rootstock") tends to result in full-sized apple trees (~30'). There are a number of cloned rootstock available that let you predetermine the height of your tree without much pruning. Dwarfing rootstocks (~8') are popular because they are easier to harvest from and a bunch of small trees densely planted usually produces more than the same area planted with a few full-sized trees. Dwarfing rootstocks also tend to start producing earlier. The downside to dwarfing rootstocks are that they tend to be shorter lived, less vigorous and less hardy.

Whip and tongue grafting involves cutting the rootstock and the scionwood at matching angles, and then making a back cut in each angle. (This is the part where you cut towards yourself and end up accidentally cutting clear through and/or cutting yourself with sharp knife. :x I'm a clutz, so you might not have this problem.) This forms a "tongue" on each piece. You push the two pieces of wood together, so that they form a sort of zig-zag as tongues interlock. (French kissing, arbor-style?) This provides some amount of natural pressure and more cambium contact. The cambium is the thin green inner back, and it is crucial to get good contact between the cambium layers of the two pieces in order for the graft to take hold. For additional pressure tape is tightly wrapped around the graft. The guy who taught the class also had us dip the whole end of the grafted tree in wax in order to help keep the grafted piece from drying out, as all of its moisture is coming from the small area of cambium contact. The buds will eventually punch right through the wax.

It's a little hard to describe the process, it's easier to understand if you see it. I was going to take pictures, but I don't own a tripod so I thought "Screw it, I'll just draw it. That will be easier to understand anyway." Then I realized that someone else had probably drawn it, and thought "Screw it, I'll just link their pictures." I'm a very busy lazy man.
Here's an article that has good pictures, and probably better instructions as well. Bet you wish I would have mentioned that to start with. LINK
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(I actually haven't read the article, just ogled the pictures. Since it's from the Missouri Extension service I'm going to assume it's good and not a bunch of pro-zombie propaganda.)

Scionwood usually comes in 8-12" lengths. Technically you only need one bud for a successful graft, but most people use a section with two or three buds in order to make it more likely that one will succeed. If more than one makes it eventually people will choose the best one and cut the others off. Usually you can cut a piece of scionwood into three or four pieces with 2+ buds each.

Three of the four grafts I made last year took, and they all survived the winter. It was easier to do than I thought going in.

Two years ago I planted a bunch of apple trees from seed to use as rootstock down the road. I planted Siberian Crabapple, Manchurian Crabapple and Ranetka Crabapple, which are all supposed to make for a very cold-hardy tree. (I also planted a few other kinds, including Antonovka, but they haven't done as well and I have since read that they might not be cold hardy enough for where I'm at.) I ordered scionwood from Fedco out of Maine and from the guy who taught the class I took up in Fairbanks. I didn't get a chance to graft some of the varieties that I got from Fedco, I mostly grafted the ones I got from the guy in Fairbanks to Siberian and Manchurian crabapple trees. All told I made 33 grafts.

Here are my initial grafts from earlier this year.
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I leave some of the branches on the rootstock. Trimming them off slightly increases the chances of the graft taking, but I leave a few of the rootstock branches on so that if the graft doesn't take I can just plant the tree as a crabapple somewhere.

Here's the pruning shears and knife I used. (Thin and sharp makes for a good grafting knife, but the utility blade might have been a little too thin.)
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After making the graft I tightly wrapped the grafted area in parafilm (wax tape). Then I dunked the scionwood and grafted area in parafin wax I had melted on an old roomates fondue pot.
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After dunking in wax I immediately dunked into a bucket of cool water. At some point someone turned off the power to my fondue pot, making the wax a little too cold. This lead to extra-thick wax on a few grafts. I was concerned this might be a problem, but it didn't seem to matter much in the end.

As of today, 20 of the 33 grafts have taken. I'm fairly happy with this success rate, considering how cheap the whole project has been and what a half-assed rush job I did on the grafting. We'll see how many survive the winter.
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These are the varieties I grafted this year:
Trailman: A very early crabapple, but supposed to be tasty unlike most extra-early apples.
Prarie Sun: Supposed to be one of the most productive apples in cold climates with short growing seasons.
Kerr: A good keeping crabapple (6+ months in a root cellar). Most apples that grow in short-season areas aren't good keepers.
Alma Sweet: An apple that is supposed to be too sweet for fresh eating, but really good for making apple sauce, apple butter, etc. The "sweet" varieties of apples were supposed to have been used in ye olden days when sugar wasn't as available.

One potential problem is that they are in pots that are too small, but it is also getting late in the summer for transplanting. Those were the pots that I had on hand when I started, and I only intended to have them in long enough to see which grafts were successful. Time got away from me, and they're still sitting there. The problem with keeping perennials in pots too long is that they get very root-bound. The roots will also start circling around the outside of the pot, and long-term a circling roots can kill a tree. I plan to shake the dirt off the roots and spread out/prune the roots when I transplant them. This isn't the ideal thing to do with perennials, but I'd rather have them get set back or die early than die six years down the road.

The other half of the problem is the time of the year. It starts getting a little frosty in about a month, and there are usually several hard frosts by mid-september. I'm worried that transplanting might cause the trees to put more effort into new growth, which will then not harden off and end up getting killed. I can wait until after they're dormant to transplant, which is often done, but in the meantime they'll continue to get more potbound. I have enough trees that I figure I'll do some each way and see what happens.


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 Post subject: Re: Apple Grafting
PostPosted: Tue Aug 02, 2016 5:33 am 
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Nice work. I've tried my hand as well but for different reasons. I ordered 14 or so bare root trees from a nursery in New York for hard cider production.

The trees have done well but I lost a few to disease or being blown over in high winds. But the roots always put up suckers so I've grafted from varieties that I like and that have done well onto the root stock of the trees that died.

It took some practice and I think everything I did the first year failed (and I cut myself pretty good) but my efforts last year were better and I think I have a viable graft on every tree.

This also allows me to tailor the orchard to what varieties grow well and produce big consistently.

My varieties area all heirloom European cider varieties including Kingston Black, Michelin, Mutsu, Binet Rouge and I have a Winesap tree that I got from Lowe's that is a huge producer as well.

Fun stuff. Thanks for the write up.


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 Post subject: Re: Apple Grafting
PostPosted: Tue Aug 02, 2016 7:11 am 
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Nice post. Thanks.

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 Post subject: Re: Apple Grafting
PostPosted: Tue Aug 02, 2016 3:56 pm 
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50 Mission Cap wrote:
Nice work. I've tried my hand as well but for different reasons. I ordered 14 or so bare root trees from a nursery in New York for hard cider production.

The trees have done well but I lost a few to disease or being blown over in high winds. But the roots always put up suckers so I've grafted from varieties that I like and that have done well onto the root stock of the trees that died.

It took some practice and I think everything I did the first year failed (and I cut myself pretty good) but my efforts last year were better and I think I have a viable graft on every tree.

This also allows me to tailor the orchard to what varieties grow well and produce big consistently.

My varieties area all heirloom European cider varieties including Kingston Black, Michelin, Mutsu, Binet Rouge and I have a Winesap tree that I got from Lowe's that is a huge producer as well.

Fun stuff. Thanks for the write up.

That's cool. I don't know much about cider apples myself, as I'm not much of a cider fan. What USDA hardiness zone are you in?

I emailed a local cider company about good cider apples that grow in my climate. One of the varieties he suggested was Dolgo crabapple. I think I'm going to try to plant a bunch of these from seed next year. They are supposedly relatively true to parent* and I figure I might be able to sell some from my family's nursery as ornamentals if nothing else.

I guess there are grafting tools which can help prevent a person from accidentally cutting himself, but I haven't looked into it. I think I'm going to scale back and only graft one or two varieties a year from now on as an experiment, so I don't have as much need for a specific tool.

I'm glad the grafts you made last year all look viable.


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 Post subject: Re: Apple Grafting
PostPosted: Tue Aug 02, 2016 4:25 pm 
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All the grafts from my previous post were bench grafts, which is to say I was grafting small trees that I had dug up on a work bench. Digging up a mature tree isn't practical, but you can still graft to them while they're in the ground. Doing so is usually called "top working".

My grandmother has a few mature crabapple trees. I made a "cleft graft" on one of the branches this spring. I sawed the branch off, and then batoned my knife into it to create a shallow split ("cleft"). I had two long pieces of scionwood with the ends cut into wedges. I jammed one piece of scionwood into either side of the split where they would come into contact with the cambium layer of big branch. I wrapped wax tape all over the end of the branch to help keep it from drying out and protect it a little while it heals over. I used electrical tape wrapped tightly to keep the wax tape in place and provide a little extra pressure on the graft, although I think the natural pressure from the cleft trying to close was plenty.

This year was really weird. Everything was happening more than a month earlier than normal. My understanding is that it's best to graft before the rootstock tree breaks bud, but it is also best not to subject the graft to a hard freeze. Things were leafing out in late April, and it isn't that unusual for us to get below zero temperatures in early May. I wasn't sure what to do, as the leaves of the crabapple were already opening at the time I made the graft. I wrapped some bubble wrap around in as some half-assed frost protection.
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I checked on the graft for weeks, but it did absolutely nothing. My experience with whip and tongue grafts is that it is normal for it to take a few weeks fro the graft to start showing sings of life. June rolled around, and still nothing. Eventually I gave up and stopped checking on it, figuring it for a failure.

I went out to check on the state of the crabapples yesterday, and I noticed that one of the pieces of scionwood had a decent amount of growth! It just took forever.
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Here's a picture of the crabapple in bloom. Fruit trees are awesome when in bloom, but unfortunately it doesn't last all that long.
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Here's the crabapples that are the ripest. The ones in the shade are still totally green.
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 Post subject: Re: Apple Grafting
PostPosted: Tue Aug 02, 2016 7:57 pm 
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Quote:
That's cool. I don't know much about cider apples myself, as I'm not much of a cider fan. What USDA hardiness zone are you in?



I'm in 6a with some weird lake influence sometimes. Although we've had a couple record cold winters recently and the trees all survived (as well as my Giant Sequoias!)

I've got a couple apple/cider books and apparently the apple is native to Kazahkstan so naturally cold hardy but of course that's variety dependent.

In the early 80's my dad had a novelty tree that produced 5 different varieties on one tree though the magic of grafting. It was cool to look at.


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 Post subject: Re: Apple Grafting
PostPosted: Tue Aug 02, 2016 8:56 pm 
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Great post, awesome info share.

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 Post subject: Re: Apple Grafting
PostPosted: Wed Aug 03, 2016 5:12 pm 
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50 Mission Cap wrote:
In the early 80's my dad had a novelty tree that produced 5 different varieties on one tree though the magic of grafting. It was cool to look at.

That's cool. I think for someone with a limited amount of space and/or not looking for an extreme volume of fruit grafting multiple varieties to one tree is the way to go.

There's a youtube channel I like called SkillCult that has a lot of apple grafting videos. He has one apple tree that has over 140 varieties growing on it.


Was your dad's tree an apple, or some other kind of fruit tree? I know people will graft multiple trees from the Prunus genus together. The Prunus genus, sometimes referred to as stone fruits, accounts for a large percentage of the common fruits and nuts. Plums, cherries, almonds, apricots and peaches are all members of the Prunus genus. (You probably already knew that, but I thought it was worth mentioning.)

There is a guy who grafts forty different Prunus trees together as an art project. His website has a really cool picture on it, but I just noticed that it is only an artists rendering. :(
Tree of 40 Fruit

I've got plenty of space to work with, so I'm mostly just going to do single grafts. I've got about thirty grafted apple trees so far, and several dozen ungrafted trees. There's no way my family could eat that many apples, but I can think of several things I could do with the potential excess.


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