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Branching Out: Fruit Tree Grafting

By Cary Rideout

Long ago I witnessed magic. There were no cauldrons or potions, yet it was magic to my young, farmboy mind. It was magic in the form of fruit tree grafting, and though decades have passed it is still just as magical to me.

An old veteran owned a large apple orchard two farms over and I often walked through it as a shortcut to the county road. One sharp April day when I was passing by, Harold Bualmer was on a ladder cutting limbs. Noticing me, he waved me over. He always had apples in his pockets and offered me what he called a “winter apple,” which to me looked like, well, an apple. He said he was pruning back the limbs and ground suckers to keep everyone behaving themselves and would use the fresh cuttings for grafts.

Being a bold child, I asked what a graft was. The old gent laughed and asked if anyone had ever shown me the orchardist’s secret. He climbed down from the ladder and told me to gather a bundle of cuttings and follow him.

Harold selected a sturdy tree with several low wrist-thick limbs. He produced the knife he had sliced up our snack of apples with, wiped it on his sleeve, and then began to work. First he trimmed off a few tiny suckers—“nuisance twigs” he gruffly called them—then, on a fairly flat area, he made a tiny, shallow triangle-shaped notch in the limb.

example of using tape for fruit tree grafting
Example of using tape for fruit tree grafting

He gently pried up the sliver of bark, carefully not cutting it free. He explained it was the spot where the cuttings would be placed, and then he turned away to the bundle of fresh cut limbs. Each limb was carefully examined, and once a selection was made he used the knife to cut an angled slash on it. The completed piece was about six inches long. Then he worked the cutting into the triangle-shaped notch. At this point he turned the cutting so it was tight and explained that the “inner barks had to touch just so” in order for the graft to work. Once satisfied, he produced a roll of black friction tape that he wound around the whole operation until no bare cuts were visible. This, he told me, was to bandage up the wound, sort of like a doctor. The friction or electrical tape would protect the pieces and would eventually fall away to let the successful graft flourish.

We performed that same simple graft several times that raw spring day. The old country gentleman selected various low limbs and applied a single graft to each. He then showed me a number of trees in various stages of development. “Someday these will bear two or three kinds of apples,” he proudly told me. I couldn’t believe a single tree could be coaxed to behave so, but Harold insisted it would happen in a decade or so.

Fruit Tree Grafting: An Old & Noble Calling

Fruit tree grafting has a long, noble history, and rightfully so. Both the ancient Egyptians and Chinese employed grafting methods thousands of years ago. The ability to take a preferred fruit and meld it onto a living tree that in turn produces the fruit has been extremely beneficial to farmers everywhere. It has also been useful in the development of the many wonderful fruit varieties we enjoy today and enables the continuation of many old-time varieties that could have disappeared. Grafting allows the exact fruit to be grown as its parent tree. This is unlike fruit grown from seed, which can yield disappointing results.

Here in Atlantic Canada, grafting was an April job, done before the spring sap moved up from the roots. It was over long before the first leaves appeared. A favorite apple tree was periodically pruned and the newest growth, generally four to six inches, was saved.

Around most farms there are plenty of wild apple trees that seem to pop up from nowhere. Most are some sort of tiny crab variety, and these hardy pioneers often provide the perfect rootstock.

The correct term for a short, pruned cutting is a “scion,” but farmers around my place always called them “slips” since you slip them into place. Scions, or slips, are attached to an existing root system, which is called rootstock. An existing apple tree trunk is cut off and used to provide a root system for the graft. The type of grafting dictates how the pruned slip is attached, but the method most commonly used is called “top grafting” or “cleft grafting.”

A three- to five-inch diameter tree trunk provides room for a couple slips to be grafted. I have seen nursery workers insert as many as six scions, but old-time farmers around here felt two was enough. One bit of folklore I remember was that the best rootstock was that which faced south—the belief being that it would get more sun and warm breezes.

fruit tree grafting on scion wood
Seating slips.

Like many old-time country methods, grafting is governed by a myriad of superstitions that all have a smidge of truth. Your pruned cuttings should be no bigger than a lead pencil and must have several buds. These will be very tiny in the spring since they are dormant, so look carefully— without them your graft won’t be successful.

Grandfather’s Method

My grandfather, William Rideout, used a simple top-grafting method. Once he selected his rootstock he would gather enough slips or scions for his grafts. Grandfather believed a scion from the middle of a pruned tree was best. He would use half new growth and half older wood. His scions were generally six inches, and unlike many folks he wasn’t too concerned with diameter. By using slips bigger than the usual pencil size, he felt the graft had a better chance of success because it was more mature.

Once he sawed off the rootstock, at around twelve inches above the ground, he used a wide chisel blade to split open the very center of the heartwood. Then he would remove the chisel and tap in a wooden peg made from the discarded upper rootstock. This would hold open the rootstock so he could easily insert the scion. Grandfather would set two scions opposite each other, and was very careful to get good contact with both cambiums.

He also liked to have both scions straight—not leaning—and at the same height. The wooden peg was then carefully removed so as not to disturb the scions. Then came the one part that would send modern orchardists into a real tizzy: Grandfather used roof tar to seal up his work! This sounds like a crazy notion, but the roof tar actually was quite smart. It allowed the graft to be safely sealed up, and at the same time it could expand as the tree grew since the tar never hardened too much.

Probably the most important point of any grafting operation is to get proper contact between the cambium of the rootstock and scion. Cambium is the inner bark that carries nutrients and water throughout the tree, analogous to the circulation system in our own bodies. We all know what happens when a circulation system doesn’t work. Old-time farmers all stressed the importance of getting a good smooth contact between the rootstock’s cambium and the slip’s—make sure as much is touching as possible. When gathering your prunings, don’t cut them into scions until you need them, and use a clean knife blade without rust or old rubbish stuck to it.

Once you cut your rootstock and scion, work quickly because both are exposed to airborne infections. And once you complete the job don’t wander off—use tape, grafting compound, or a homemade product to seal the graft up tight. No bare wood, cut bark, or—worse yet—delicate cambium should be exposed for long to the open air. Bandage up the operation and keep a close eye on the patient.

Once the spring leaves appeared, Grandfather watched his new slips very closely for healthy buds. If all went well, the buds would burst out along with the rest of the orchard. Sometimes the slips didn’t connect, though, and this is why Grandfather would set two per rootstock. If both were successful he would let them live and would have a mature tree with a crotch. Of course, a professional orchardist would probably not agree, and most nurseries remove the less vigorous slip to only allow one to grow. But, crotch or not, Grandfather’s trees lived well, produced well, and gave decades of good fruit. Grafts generally took six years to grow to the point where the first apples appeared, and sometimes a decade could pass. The apples were generally close copies of the parent tree or sometimes a blend of both trees.

Protecting the Graft

A graft is like an open wound, and the rootstock’s circulatory system is laid open by your cuts. Use graft tape or a similar product to seal the connection and protect the graft. For centuries, orchardists employed homemade products (including roofing tar!), many of which are still being used today. The earliest orchardists used clay to plaster up the graft, which of course had mixed results, infections and failures being common.

Protect fresh fruit tree grafts with protective tape
Fresh cleft grafts with protective tape

By the 1800s, our great-grandparents were mixing up beeswax, beef tallow and rosin to make a very effective sealing wax. Ordinary melted candle or paraffin wax can be used to seal out the elements. Whatever product is used, it must be pliable so the tree can develop new bark to cover the open cut. Modern grafting compound is very malleable and is easy to work into and around the graft. Along with commercial grafting compound, tree wound dressing or Parifilm grafting tape is also available.

Fruit Tree Grafting: Superstar of its Day

Grafting was once one of the most popular and enjoyable farming methods. Apples were king of the fruit world in the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries in North America.

Apples were a reliable cash crop and regional varieties were grown in a dizzying array of local styles. With typical pioneering spirit, farmers labored long at grafting, pruning, and pollinating, and still enjoyed just talking about apples. A great-aunt of mine recalls folks talking about apple varieties like the music superstars of today; everyone had a favorite and wanted to grow more of it.

One of the fathers of modern apple growing in my home of Carlton County was Francis Peabody Sharp. Sharp worked tirelessly during the latter half of the 1800s to develop varieties of fruit trees that could stand the wide variety of conditions in the North Country and produce excellent eating qualities. He was even able to raise pears in our harsh New Brunswick climate.

Sharp won awards in North America as well as abroad, and his name was as well known as today’s movie stars. Grafting was only one of Sharp’s many orchard tools, and I suspect his influence was felt by both of my grafting mentors.

My grandfather was a fan of two old-time varieties: Alexander and Wealthy. I wish I knew the number of trees he grafted these two wonderful fruits onto. Both varieties stored well and improved over the winter in both taste and cooking quality. Grandfather used the more traditional top-graft method. His generation was extremely aware of the importance of good storable fruit, since the root cellar was the only way to keep garden or orchard produce.

In today’s world fruit, tree grafting is mostly the tool of nursery workers and professional orchardists. But with care and a sharp knife, even the small acreage owner can bring new life to old trees. Like so many things from my youth, I have forgotten most of what Harold told me that day. But one thing that was burned into my memory was the way a fruit tree could be coaxed into producing more than one kind of apple. It seemed like magic then and still does today.

This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.