Feb 5, 2018
by Kellen Watson, Daily Acts
February, February…what to do in the garden? Most plants are dormant. Too early for annual vegetables. Already sowed cover crop and mulched beds. Eating most of my weeds. So there’s not much fun to be had…or is there? Luckily Mother Nature has set us up for a delightfully creative winter project…bare root and grafting season! This is the time to take advantage of the winter cold and fruit trees’ resulting dormancy to propagate your own fruit trees.
Grafting is one of the most affordable, creative ways to start or expand your own fruit tree collection (and believe me, it does become a collecting hobby!). Grafting is a propagation technique in which a short length of young wood (called scion wood) or a bud from a tree with desirable fruit is cut and then spliced together with the roots of another tree with desirable growth characteristics (called rootstock).
Many people don’t realize that if you take a seed from a Fuji apple or a Bosc pear and plant it, the resulting tree will not produce Fuji or Bosc fruit. That’s true of most common fruit. Instead that new tree’s fruit will express a wild variety of mixed up genes from multiple parents, and the result is often fruit that’s small, oddly textured, tannic, acidic, or just generally not great for eating. Grafting allows you to be more selective about the fruit you want, and match that to compatible rootstock that will help determine the tree’s size, vigor, disease resistance, and soil type tolerance.
Most fruit trees are propagated this way and then grown out at the nursery before being sold for $60+. If you have the time to wait for the tree to grow and fruit to set after a few years, you can get that same tree for $2.50 plus a little time.
The first step is to order rootstock.
You can grow your own too, but they’re so affordable it may not be worth the time and bed space to DIY this part. You’ll want to do some research about the particular rootstock type you want for your site. Semi-dwarfing varieties are often a nice balance of smaller size and toughness.
Then you’ll need to find some exciting fruit trees to collect scion wood from! This is the fun part, because you get to talk to the new neighbor with an orchard in their yard, that random person down the road who has an apple tree, or the amazing folks at the annual Rare Fruit Growers Scion Exchange or Sonoma County Seed Swap (coming up 2/16 at the Sebastopol Grange!). Most people don’t mind if you cut a few scions from their trees because they would prune that wood off anyways. It is important that the tree be totally dormant when you cut the scions, and that you use clean pruners. A wipe of rubbing alcohol on the blades after each cut will make sure you’re not unwittingly spreading fruit diseases. Cut only small diameter branches that are at the very tips of the tree and are growing straight and clean. Older wood will not graft correctly. Lastly, make sure to label obsessively. Write the variety and when and where you got it on a piece of masking tape, and tape that around bundles from the same tree. Then put them in a bag with a moist paper towel and refrigerate until you’re ready to graft.
When it’s time to graft you’ll need a special grafting knife, a pot with soil, Parafilm grafting tape, and electrical tape. You’ll want to attend a how-to class (unfortunately ours is sold out!), or really spend some time with the old YouTube learning how to properly graft. It’s nice to practice with a few regular young sticks before starting on your rootstock. There are many ways to graft, but an easy one is to cut a V-shaped notch in the rootstock (or some people do this on the scion wood) and a matching V-shaped chisel on the scion wood (or some people do this on the rootstock). Then you’ll insert one piece into the other, line up the cambium layers, and trim the scion wood to be 2-3 buds long. Tape the entire scion and new graft tight with grafting tape. Then electrical tape can go on top of the graft union to secure it. Make sure it’s in good soil (being careful with the graft union) and then water and wait! As the spring warms up you should see young leaves shooting out through the Parafilm. Any leaves growing below the graft union should be removed, as they belong to the root stock. After a while, the bark of the two trees parts will grow together and you’ll have a healthy new tree!
There is a fair amount of nuance to grafting, which takes practice, but it’s amazing how forgiving plants can be. I hope you have fun trying this out and end up with a fantastic fruit collection. Happy February!
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