Grafting for the Beginner

Why was I interested in grafting?  Because I have always heard it talked about, but never saw anyone doing it.  I wanted to be make those ‘fruit cocktail’ trees you read about.  I wanted to see what it was like to stick a piece of one tree onto another and watch it grow.

Why Are My Grafts Not Taking?

Unfortunately, I was met with failure after failure.  When I first got to the farm, the only thing I ever successfully grafted was a Honey Crisp onto an Orange Cox Pippen. Unfortunately the Pippen (and the graft) died in 2019 after about 17 years of life.

close up of honey crisp on cox orange pippen
My first successful graft. Honey Crisp onto Cox Orange Pippen. The whitish looking stuff on the stem i the grafting wax placed around the scion to keep it airtight while it grew into the parent tree. Can you see the simple wedge connection?

After that, it would be another 2 years before I got my Summer Crisp pear to accept the scion of the Beurre Blanc. Following that, another year passed before I successfully married Hukar pear to Summer Crisp again.  Remember that each season I am trying at least a dozen grafts, but only those mentioned above turned out successfully.

This Hukar-to-Cabot graft is a year old. Can you see the distinct outline of the original wedge? The scion (the top part) was cut into a wedge and inserted into the split wood of Cabot (lower part of the stem)
This Hukar-to-Cabot graft is a year old. Can you see the distinct outline of the original wedge? The scion (the top part) was cut into a wedge and inserted into the split wood of Cabot (lower part of the stem).  The arch-like brown on the scion is called the ‘church window’, a portion of the wedge cut still visible after the graft.

When to Harvest Wood for Grafting

This year however, i decided to read the instructions 🙂  I decided to harvest the scion wood like every article told me to…in the dead of winter when it was completely dormant.  That’s precisely what I did.  I can still see myself trudging through the snow, in the bitter cold, chopping off pieces of my favorite apple trees. I cut the wood of the past season’s growth, popped it in a large trash bag, added a bit of snow for moisture, then loosely sealed it and placed it in the milk house for cold storage keeping.

When should I graft?

Prior to this year, I had always grafted in the earliest part of spring…March and early April when everything was still dormant.  I didn’t understand that the parent tree must be VERY alive in order for grafts to succeed.  So this year, I waited until we had a full week of warmth and there was definite bud swell and growth occurring in my parent trees.  Then after the week was up, I started my first phase of grafting.

This is Almata, a red-through-out edible crab with beautiful, large single red/pink flowers in the spring. It's a strong grower and hopefully a good pollenizer for the Cox Orange Pippen onto which it is grafted. Once I'm sure this graft takes, I'll remove the larger C.O.P branch to the left of the graft union so that the tree's energy goes into growing the new limb
This is Almata, a red-through-out edible crab with beautiful, large single red/pink flowers in the spring. It’s a strong grower and hopefully a good pollenizer for the Cox Orange Pippen onto which it is grafted. Once I’m sure this graft takes, I’ll remove the larger C.O.P branch to the left of the graft union so that the tree’s energy goes into growing the new limb

It was probably still too early.  According to the Amish guy that sold me my latest batch of trees.  They don’t graft till NOW (middle of May).  Some grafters say that they wait till they see ‘mouse ears’ of green on the trees.  This year, as I said, I waited till we had a full week of warm weather and I knew that the sap was flowing (I saw bud swell).  After that, I took a business trip, then returned and did additional grafting when things were further along.  Then today, May 12th, I received a shipment of fruit trees from the Amish farm. The Whitney crabapple I received was still dormant, so I tried it onto my volunteer apple in the corn patch.  It successfully bonded!  The first to do so after at least a dozen attempts to get it right.

graft on almata with bechtel
This is Bechtel grafted onto the Almata discussed in the previous photo. Again, worthless with respect to fruit production, but may assist with pollenizing the Almata (though I’m pretty sure that the Bechtel opens later) and one can’t dismiss the ‘cool’ factor of having two different trees grow out of the same trunk 🙂

What Wood To Use When Grafting?

In my attempts, I’ve cut the  scion wood from the previous season’s growth.  That means that the wood I collect in January ’16 will be wood that grew June-August in 2015.  

I harvest a large portion of wood, much more than will actually be grafted.  The ‘water sprouts’ are especially appealing to me; they look so fecund!  In general, I harvest a large portion because I believe it helps the branch retain moisture.  I bag it and keep it refrigerated (in my case I put the wood in a trash bag and store it on the floor of the milk house)

How To Graft in Three Steps

Collect the Scion Wood

I have watched and read ALOT about grafting. I know that there are many, many ways to cut the scion wood. I default to the easiest which is to slice the bottom portion of the wood into a wedge.  I try to do this with as few cuts as possible so that the wood remains viable and healthy to graft to the receiving tree.  The total length of your scion should be 7-9 inches long.  Make sure that before you graft the scion onto the tree, you have either used Tree Kote, grafting wax, or grafting tape to seal the tip of the scion against drying out.  In the above photo of the Almata onto C.O.P, you can see a bit of masking tape holds an underlying wrap of grafting tape securely over the pruned, scion tip.

Prepare the Receiving Tree

The next step is to prune a portion of your receiving tree back.  When i graft, I try to match the diameter of the branch that I am pruning back to the diameter of the scion, but this is not critical as you can see in the Almata to C.O.P graft above.  Provided a good portion of the cambium (the active growing layer just below the bark) of both the scion and the receiving tree are in physical contact, the graft can work.

Now make a cut into the receiving tree limb that you just pruned. If you are removing one portion of a branch and replacing it with another, then this cut will be perpendicular to the cut that you just made.  In the case of the ‘side’ graft, this cut is made into the receiving wood at a 45 degree angle to the length of the stem (again, look at the Almata graft)

Graft Your Trees

Using the blade of your knife to wedge the receiving tree slice open, slide the scion into place.  Pay attention that at least one side of the cambium on the scion aligns with the cambium on the receiving tree.  The pressure of the wood on the receiving tree should hold your scion securely, but for added support, wrap the graft using grafting tape.

Why Aren’t My Grafts ‘Taking’…Probably Timing

That’s it.  Really, grafting is not difficult.  I used to believe that the devil was in the details.  In this case, the devil is in the timing.  Collect wood when it is completely dormant and store it so that it remains dormant (and cool and moist).  Then, when the receiving tree is actively growing and the weather is warm (in Northeast Pa, this is late April, early May) graft the scion wood. Do what you can to prevent the scion wood and the grafting union from drying out.  I use grafting tape.  Also, be patient!  Some grafts will take off like rockets, others will be much slower about showing signs of life.  Don’t forget to label!  It will be great to know which limb is what somewhere down the line 🙂

Made the ‘mistake’ (if you want to call it that) of harvesting two-year old wood for the scion. I couldn’t figure out why the buds were taking so long to break. It was because they were flower buds, not vegetative ones. The scion still fused successfully with the tree onto which it was grafted, but the emerging flower buds tapped the energy of the little twig and retarded its growth the first year.
I have had MUCH better success since starting to graft at the end of April beginning of May here in Northeast Pennsylvania. I find that the following factors contribute the a successful graft 1) Collect completely dormant wood in the middle of Jan through middle of February. 2) wax the ends of the harvested scions, store in plastic bag in fridge so that they remain consistently cold and in the dark 3)After ‘mouse ears’ or a bit of bud break on the fruit trees, graft scions to tree 4) Ensure good cambium connection…almost any kind of graft will work provided that the cambium of scion touches that of the tree onto which it will be grafted 5) Wrap up the graft to ensure it stays hydrated until you get sap flow and growth.
I planted Antonovka apple seedlings (purchased from St. Lawrence Nursery in 2019) in the newly cleared orchard site on the very northeastern part of the property. The seedlings are INCREDIBLY hardy. They ALWAYS grow and can take the most severe abuse. After 1 year of full growth, I decided to try to graft Liberty (my most disease free and annually-reliable apple in the orchard) onto the seedlings. As you can see, the endeavor was successful.
Two scions on the Granny Smith. The one on the right, if I’m not mistaken, is the one that was two years old and the buds took forever to break.
Don’t know what this is…blurry I guess. Looks like some kind of an apple, but at least you can see (somewhat), the merged tissue.
This is Liberty grafted onto a Whitney Crab. The Liberty is the darker stem on the right-most part of the tree. Zoom in and you’ll be able to spot the graft union. This graft is one year old and I have pruned the tree for three major fruiting limbs, one of which will be Liberty.

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