How to Graft Apple Trees
Let us begin this article with an assumption. Let’s assume you are a good old country boy (or girl for that matter) and grew up with your momma making you and your kin the best fried pies in the county. Let’s also assume that these pies were good (at least partly) because of your old apple tree out back. You are now all grown up, and your momma’s fried pies are but distant memories of that old farmhouse with that now dying old tree out back. You want momma’s fried apple pies, and would rather wait for your dearly departed momma herself to fry one up up yonder than to stoop so low as to buy the apples at the market.
Sad tale, I know. But the story does leave us wondering how poor old country boy like yourself could once again have your momma’s fried pie. To save your favorite apple pie, and all of the memories that come with it, you have two choices. The first option would be to look for a sucker, or sprout, coming out from the roots of the tree. This is how early American farmers have done it for hundreds of years. It does, however, have some drawbacks. Waiting for sprouts to appear is slow work. Additionally, if the tree has been grafted, like almost all trees are, all you will be getting is its rootstock and not the desired tree. The second option would be to graft. The skill of grafting keeps our loved fruit varieties alive and the doors to every nursery open. Without grafting, the whole fruit industry would not be where it is today.
Grafting is a strange, old piece of technology. A grafter literally binds a piece of a desired variety onto another tree (of the same kind) and allows the stock side of the tree (the lower side of the graft) to adopt the scion (upper piece). Once the scion takes, it is now an exact identical (though nourished by another variety) as the original tree. This skill goes back thousands of years, even being referenced in Scripture. Paul uses grafting as a metaphor for the Gentiles and Jews in Romans 11:16-24, describing how the” wild olive” branch is grafted on the “good olive” tree.
You might think there is another way to save the apple – by obtaining and planting its seeds. The result, however, would be as different from the original tree as you are from your mother. The old apple has crossed with another apple, possibly miles away, and has created a entirely new “variety.” It may be a good apple, or it may not be, but that is not the point; it is not your apple. To get an exact replica of your beloved apple, you must graft it.
If you want another reason to graft, think of the money you will save. I got my rootstocks and scions at $2.50 and $3.50 each, respectively. Each scion should be good for 4-6 grafts, so you are looking at between $3.10 – $3.40 for each grafted tree. Now compare that to a bareroot 2-year old tree. Even if you could find your desired variety, the tree will cost $20 or more, plus a large shipping cost if not grown locally. Though I have nothing against buying a ready-to-plant tree, for the money minded, grafting is the way to go.
What if our beloved apple, instead, died long ago? Or, like me, you never were blessed with such a apple and want to start your own memories? Several businesses specialize in selling old apple varieties that could include your old apple or what your old apple could or should have been. When I grafted my trees, I got most of my scions from an online source. Look at the end of this article for links to such sources. I found many great old apple varieties, well adapted to my climate (not many modern apple varieties are), each with a rich Southern background.
When choosing between apple varieties, categorize into purpose, ripening time, and place of origin. Purposes for apples include eating, keeping, and cider. For fresh eating, a few varieties I recommend are Winesap or a Limbertwig. These are perfect for growing in the South. Each have their own unique twang that can’t be duplicated. Magnum Bonums and Yates make excellent keepers, allowing you to enjoy the goodness well into the winter months. A whole group of apples are grown to make great ciders. Hewe’s Crab could quite possibly be the world’s best cider apple. George Washington preferred crab cider above all others. Finally look at the ripening time of the apple. Carolina Red June ripens in, you guessed it, late June, while Yates ripens all the way in late October or November. It’s also important to note the origin of each variety, particularly if they were developed locally. I highly prize my Carter’s Blue, an 1840’s variety from right down the road in Union Springs, not only because I like the thought of my relatives growing up and eating from the same tree, but I also know that it has adapted to my area.
A couple varieties can serve as great all-purpose apples. Horse, one of the most popular home apples, not only grows vigorously but also serves great for eating, cooking, drying, and cider. Buckingham and Shockley also serve as a superb general apple, and keep rather well. Whatever apple varieties you choose, be sure to get several different types to ensure good cross-pollination.
Now that you got the scions, you need a stock to graft it to. If you want, you can get any young sprout, from an apple or crab apple tree, and graft your tree on it. As of the past 100 years, however, man has developed trees with disease-resistent and dwarfing capabilities. These trees make up almost all of today’s rootstocks (the base of tree containing the roots). Apple rootstocks generally come in two types; dwarf and semi-dwarf. Dwarf rootstocks keep the tree small, where many small trees can be planted close together and usually trained on a trellis. Dwarf trees usually grow to about 6-10’ tall. Semi-dwarf trees are larger than dwarf trees, but significantly smaller than a standard tree, or a full-sized tree, that can get to heights of around 30’. Gardeners widely use semi-dwarf stocks; even the major fruit industries have abandoned the standard-size trees and gone to the smaller, more tamable options.
When looking for rootstocks, look first at its growing preferences. Get one that fits your soil-type and climate. Also, look at the disease resistance. Although size is important, it should be the last requirement. Most of my grafts are done on a MM. 111 rootstock. This variety fits my climate and soil and has good disease resistance. Though it grows taller than many semi-dwarfs, up to 18-20’, I will be able to keep it down to a manageable size if I wish by pruning.
Collecting the Scions
Collect the scions in February or early March, before the buds begin to swell. Only collect one-year-old wood. Good scions will be long and straight and about the diameter of a pencil (1/4” to ½” wide).
Storing the Scions and Rootstocks
Wrap the cuttings first in a moist paper towel and then in plastic wrap, or place in a plastic bag. Store in the chill drawer of you refrigerator until ready to graft. Treat the rootstocks the same way. If you need to keep the scions healthy and mold-free for more than a week in the refrigerator, prepare a 5% bleach solution to dip them in.
Check the scions and stocks regularly to make sure they remain moist. Also, keep your fruit in another refrigerator than the scions and rootstocks. Many fruits, including apples, bananas, and even avocados, release an aging hormone called ethylene gas as they ripen. This hormone not only promotes ripening, but also prevents buds from blooming. Not cool.
There are several common grafts good for working fruit trees. Apples trees give good results when whip and tongue grafted. That is the graft method I use and will describe. Other good candidates for this type of graft are pecans, pear, and even stone fruits to a lesser degree (they prefer cleft grafting or budding, but that’s another article).
Whip grafting, or bench grafting as some call it, is best performed as winter dies down, early March for warmer areas and late March-early April in cold climates. Before you pull everything out and start hacking, however, be sure you have the following necessities.
- Pruning sheers – If the pair you got at the drug store just broke again, invest in a pair of Felcos.
- Grafting knife (or another sharp, 2-3” flat-bladed knife)
- Grafting tape – This is what wraps around the spliced section. Parafilm grafting tape is easy to use and allows oxygen and carbon dioxide passage. First aid tape breaths well and works if you can’t obtain grafting tape. It will, however choke the tree if not removed after the tree starts to widen. Other options include using electrical tape or rubber bands. However, be aware that electrical tape does not breath and can harbor molds and also easily girdles trees. When using rubber bands you will have to apply extra wax around the graft.
- Grafting wax – There are several commercial waxes available, however, a recipe I got from my state’s extension service makes making your own wax easy: melt together 4 parts resin (pine resin works fine, though you may have to filter it through a screen), 2 parts beeswax, and 1 part tallow (all by weight) in a pan that you don’t mind getting waxy. Once melted, cover with water and work under the water like you are working taffy. Once the wax has cooled and softened, place in a tin. Apply to the tree by hand (which can quickly become a sticky mess), or melt and apply when warm with a brush or stick.
- Labels – Masking tape makes great temporary labels when written on with an indelible marker and wrapped around the stock.
Once you got the required supplies, remove the scions and stocks from storage and bring to the work area.
- Cut a long, diagonal line across the base of the scion. The cut should preferably be opposite of a bud.
- Make an incision one-third up from the base of the previous cut, cutting in parallel with the stem. The cut should be about a ¼” deep, depending on the diameter of the scion.
- Repeat the process on the rootstock. You want the cut about 6” from the base of the stem, or where the roots start.
- Fit the scion and stock together, allowing the tongues to interlock. Match up the stems. Quite often, the scion and stock will not be the same diameter. If this is the case, no worries, just align the cambium layers (just under the bark) on one side of the stems. If the ends of the scion or stock extend beyond the joint, trim it off now.
- Bind this union with tape. Be sure to start a little below the union and end a little above it. Don’t worry if you cover up the first bud next to the cut.
- Apply wax to any airways that the tape may have left (or to the union itself if using a rubber band). Cut the scion off 2 or 3 buds above the graft and seal the cut with wax.
- Repeat with the remaining scion. It should give you 4-6 grafts.
If you are expecting more cold weather (below 20 degrees), rewrap trees in a plastic bag (the top sticking out) and keep at room temperature for 7-10 days. This warmer weather will promote callus tissue formation on the graft. After this time you can return the tree to the refrigerator and store until the cold has past.
If you live where the cold is not a problem, like here in Alabama, go ahead and set out or pot the trees. If you have a lot of trees, plant directly in prepared ground, spacing them 8-10” apart and in rows of 50-60.” On the small scale, however, it is worth potting the trees. It might also be a good idea to label each pot with the variety of the plant.
As spring progresses, you will see that not all of your grafts were successful. Don’t fret, no horticulturist (and that is what you are) has a hundred percent success rate. Hopefully, however, the majority of your grafts took.
Allow the trees to grow freely until the grafts have completely healed, about 3 or 4 months. At this time, remove the tape, if needed, and trim back all the branches coming from the rootstock and all but the most vigorous scion branch. Congratulations, you now have a beautiful young apple tree!
Take care of the young apples through the summer months. Keep the soil moist, remove weeds and rootstock sprouts, and protect from pests and disease. Around November you can re-pot the tree or plant in final location.
Check out Big Horse Creek Farm for a wide variety of apples (available as scions).
Century Farms Orchards has a great selection of apples and rootstock as well as a great library page, where I received a lot of this information.
If you want to learn more about Southern apple varieties or apple history in general, Creighton Lee Calhoun’s Old Southern Apples is a wonderful resource. I have gotten a lot of knowledge and enjoyment out of my copy and deem it well worth the price.