When we first planted our dwarf orchard we included several varieties of apples that we had not grown before. We tried Cox’s ‘Orange Pippin’ because it was a very popular in England, ‘Granny Smith’ because of its sales in local stores and ‘Paula Red’ because it seemed to be a very good mid summer apple as grown in Pennsylvania. As it turned out, neither of the first two varieties has been a success for us. Cox’s ‘Orange Pippin’ are adversely affected by the growing conditions here and we’ve gotten very few apples to show for our effort. On the other hand the ‘Granny Smith’ do very well but compared to the other varieties we grow they don’t compare in flavor to those found in stores and don’t look the same, so other than to local bakers, they don’t sell well.
We had two options as to what to do with these trees in our orchard. One, we could push the trees out and replant other varieties, or we could graft them over to other varieties. We actually did both. The Cox’s ‘Orange Pippin’ were doing so poorly that we pushed out all but five trees and have used the ground for other crops. The ‘Granny Smith’, on the other hand were doing so well that we basically saved the rootstock, trunk of the tree, and the cost of the new trees by grafting them over to more ‘Paula Red’, which turned out as we had hoped, and our ‘Spencerville Red’ when we first wanted to see if they would do well in a commercial orchard.
Grafting, as a matter of fact, has been done for centuries and it’s a useful tool not only for the commercial grower but also for the home gardener. Grafts can be made on both fruit and ornamental plants, however grafts are only successful on the same kind or closely related plants. For example, a graft can be made between a silver maple and a sugar maple, but not with a silver maple and a dogwood, nor between an apple and a peach. Often, an interesting and useful thing to do with an overgrown but healthy fruit tree is to cut it back and graft onto it a more desired variety of that particular fruit and start over with a tree that is then easier to care for. Because the roots are well established, growth will be very strong and the tree will soon be back in production.
Knowing the meaning of often used grafting terms helps make the task easier. The stock is the root, tree, or portion of the tree into which the graft is set. The scion is the piece of the tree that is grafted into the stock. (For cleft grafting the scion should be from the previous season’s growth and contain three to five buds.) The cambium layer is a single layer of living cells that is between the bark and the sapwood.
Of course, to do any grafting, tools and supplies are needed. A saw, grafting chisel or hatchet, grafting wax and tape are the few items needed to work with.
Fruit growers use cleft-grafting for both young and mature trees. The trunk or branches to be grafted should not be more than 2 ½ inches in diameter, but we have been successful with trunks up to four inches. In cleft-grafting, saw off the stock and split it to a depth of two or three inches. Insert a scion with a wedge shaped base. If the stock is large enough, use two scions. Be sure the cambium layers match up between the stock and scion pieces. Use the grafting tape to secure the scion to the stock then apply wax to the tape and any exposed cuts on the stock and scion, including the top of the scion. Although some of the buds on the scion should be left without wax, if they are covered they will push out through the wax anyway. Be sure to read the directions on the wax because it is very sticky and won’t easily come off of anything.
I usually heat the wax slowly in a pan that we use just for this purpose. At one time I did visit a school to demonstrate grafting. I heated the wax with a cover over the pan to ensure that it would be melted enough when I was ready to use it. Not only was it hot enough, but it burst into flames when I removed the cover. Fortunately, the hot plate was sitting on the floor and the flames didn’t quite reach the ceiling and eventually died down to where the pan could be placed outside to smolder. The students let me know that this was much more interesting than the last speaker they had.
On larger trees more than one variety can be grafted onto the stock. The difference in growth habits of different varieties will be noticed in a tree done in this manner.
The best time to cleft graft is in the early spring, just before growth starts. In our orchard we will graft from mid February to mid March.
Where two scion pieces were grafted into one section of stock come back next spring and remove the weaker scion. If both scions are allowed to remain, broken branches usually result.