An Easy Method for Grafting Apple Trees

Use cleft grafting to start a one-tree apple orchard.
By Ray Meloy
January/February 1984
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The first step in cleft grafting apple trees is to take cuttings from below a healthy bud. 

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How many folks do you know who can boast of having an apple tree that bears Roxbury Russets, Westfield Seek-No-Furthers, Esopus Spitzenbergs, and crab apples ... simultaneously? Well, you'll be able to make that—or your own unique—claim if you follow the easy grafting procedure I’ve outlined here.

You see, I discovered years ago that, even with just one lonely apple tree, I could use a no-sweat technique called cleft grafting to transform something as unpromising as a “crabber” into a veritable apple factory. The time for grafting apple trees is just before the buds pop open in late winter or in early spring … and here’s how.

Cleft Grafting Procedure

Step One

Locate donor trees that offer the varieties of apple you want. I’ve found that most folks will allow you to take cuttings from even their most valued apple producers, as long as you act as if you know what you’re going … and assure them you won’t harm their trees. Tree cuttings used for grafting are called scions, and you’ll want to take them from thin limbs that produced well the previous summer, as evidenced by an abundance of dormant but fat early-spring buds. 

Harvest scions in foot-lengths, beginning your cut just below one of the buds. With a sharp knife, slice into the limb at a downward angle, so that the cut forms a wedge extending an inch or so below the bottom bud. (It’s important not to damage the bark on the side of the wedge opposite the bud … and don’t take so many cuttings that you’ll weaken the donor tree.) 

When you’ve collected all the scions that you’ll need, just drop the whole batch into a pail of water to carry home and store until you’re ready to make the implants. 

Step Two

Locate your host tree. Often, the best choice is an ailing “fruit factory” that’s all but shut down production as a result of neglect. Or do as I did, and graft several delicious varieties on to one of those scrubby little crab apple-makers that seem to grow just about everywhere. In either case, no more than a quarter to a third of any tree should be grafted each year, and only the healthiest branches should be selected as hosts. The limbs can be any length you wish, but their diameters should range from 3/4” to 2” at the points where they’ll be cut off to receive the scions.  

Using a saw that won’t tear up the limb, cut the first host branch off square to form a stump. Next, use a chisel or a heavy knife and a hefty block of wood as a mallet to drive a cleft a couple of inches deep (and no more than that distance!) into the center of the stump. For now, leave the chisel in place. 

Got that pail of scions handy? Using the same bevel cut you employed to harvest them, shorten each of the longer bud-sticks into 3” and 4” sections with three or four buds. Then, with the chisel acting as a wedge to hold open the cleft in the stump, make the implants … one scion in a limb of 1” diameter or less, and two in a larger stump. 

Now, here’s the important part: Do you see the pulpy layer just under the bark? It’s called the cambium, and it’s where all the merging and growing takes place … so make sure that the cambium of the scions is lined up and in contact with that of the stump. In addition, the bottom bud of each implanted scion should rest just a fraction of an inch above the stump, facing outward. With two-scion implants, position one at each side of the stump. Next, carefully withdraw the chisel, allowing the cleft to spring shut, clamping the scion(s) in place. .. and you’re ready to move along to the next limb.  

Final Step

Coat all the exposed (that is, cut) portions of your grafts with melted wax. And to insure a good “take” for your grafts, give the entire tree a pruning, removing all dead limbs and wild shoots that might rob your “babies” of vital nutrients.  

Except to check your wax “wrappers” for damage (recoat any exposed areas), leave the grafts alone for the first year. At the beginning of their second year of growth, prune off the weaker of the two scions on each of the larger host limbs. 

As Easy as (Apple) Pie

See? There’s no big secret to crossbreeding fruit trees with the cleft-grafting method. And you can do a new batch of grafts each spring until you’ve converted a near worthless yard decoration into a multicolored, one-tree apple orchard!

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