Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.
I might be accused of being the Henry the Fourth of horticulture. Visitors here are amazed — or is it shocked? — to learn of my apparent ruthlessness.
A case in point: I grow about two dozen varieties of pear, all trees I made myself by growing rootstocks from pear seeds and grafting onto those rootstocks one or more stems (known as scions) of a variety I want to grow. (Pears on seedling rootstocks grow very large and I’m afraid of heights. So I usually make dwarf trees by grafting scions onto scions of special dwarfing rootstocks that, in turn, get grafted on the seedling rootstocks.) Problem is that I’ve never tasted many of the varieties I’ve grown. I chose them from recommendations or from printed descriptions. Alas, some varieties never live up to their promise, for me at least. And then, it’s off with their heads.
In contrast to Henry, I don’t lop off their heads and that’s the end of them. Instead, after lopping a tree back to a fairly low stub of trunk, I then stick on some new scions. With a full-grown root system beneath them, the scions, once they’ve knit to the rootstocks, really take off, often growing more than 3 feet in one season.
These “top-worked” trees also bear quickly, sometimes within a couple of years. And a couple of years after that, the graft smooths out so that you’d hardly guess at the apparently brutal treatment the tree endured just a few years back. Unless, of course, I’m not pleased with the fruit of the new variety, in which case it’s again, “Off with your head."
My favorite graft for these tree makeovers is known as a bark graft and the time to do it is just as leaves are beginning to poke out of recently dormant stems and the bark easily separates from the wood. Which is now, early May, here in New York’s Hudson Valley. Ideally, foot-long scions of one-year-old wood (last years growth) have been gathered a few weeks previous and have been kept dormant with refrigeration.
The nice thing about the bark graft is that it comes with an insurance policy. Onto a stub of a trunk a couple of inches or more in diameter, you can stick 3, 4, 5, or even more scions, depending on just how wide the trunk is. Only one scion needs to grow; the more that are grafted, the greater the chance of success.
The graft itself is simple. I make a long, evenly sloping cut, typically about 2 inches long, near the base of the scion. Then, into the freshly cut stub on which the scions will be grafted, I make two slits about the width of the base of the scion and through the bark and down to the wood. Lifting the bark near where it was cut provides an opening into which I slide the cut scion with this sloping cut facing inward and deep enough to cover its sloping cut. This is repeated with the other scions, all around the stub. One or two staples from a staple gun or a wrapping of electrician’s tape suffices to hold the scions and the flap of bark from the rootstock in place.
Finally, and very important, everything needs to be sealed against moisture loss. A number of specially formulated concoctions will do this; my favorite is Tree-Kote.
Today I lopped the head off some major limbs of a 16-year-old chestnut seedling and grafted the variety Peach (yes, it’s a chestnut variety) on one large stub and the variety Colossal on the other. Tomorrow, I’ll decapitate a Doyenne de Juillet pear that’s only claim to fame, here at least, is that the fruit ripens in July, and stick some Beurre Superfin scions onto the waiting stub.
No harm done.