A Guide to Grafting Apple Trees

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Although making your own cider does require some patience and a little elbow grease (even if the little folks lend a hand), the results make all that effort seem well worth it.
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Bud grafting: Wrapping. The cambrium, or layer of cells between the bark and the wood, must be joined to the cambrium of the new stock, and bound tightly.
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Bud grafting: The first cut.
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Bud grafting: The second and third cut.

Sweetbough, Black Gilliflower, Sops of Wine, Adam’s Pearain–these old apple varieties were introduced to our country by the first settlers from France and England. American farmers selected the most vigorous and disease-resistant of these seedlings to grow in their own orchards, and anxiously awaited their first autumn harvest.

After examining their bounty, farmers found that although the apples were small and rough-looking, they nevertheless held an aromatic smell and a tart, crisp taste. Then in the late 1700s, New York and New England farmers found that by experimenting with their farming methods, they could make all sorts of new varieties. And they did. Thanks to these inventive apple breeders, we were blessed with a dizzying variety of apples to choose from.

Only you won’t find too many of the old-fashioned apples in supermarkets today. Sadly, these apples are getting harder and harder to find. They haven’t vanished altogether, though–people who find modern apples as boring as boiled potatoes are on a mission to bring these old varieties back by grafting apple trees and replanting them in their own orchards and gardens.

Now if you’re planning to grow old varieties of apples in your own orchard, understand that almost all of these are complex hybrids, which means their seeds won’t grow up to be anything like the parent tree. So in order to reproduce a particular variety of apples, a nurseryperson must take a piece of that grafting stock and graft it onto another tree (the rootstock). Thanks to grafting techniques, it has been possible to keep old-time apple varieties true-to-parent for centuries.

Today there are retail nurseries which carry grafted trees of old apple varieties, particularly the Malling series. It’s really quite simple to produce your own grafted trees, and you can do it for next to nothing (except, of course, for an expenditure of time and patience) if you grow your own seedling rootstock and collect grafting stock from your favorite wild or abandoned trees.

Most people do their actual grafting during the winter, but there’s plenty of planning to do over the fall. First, you’ll have to select which types of rootstocks you want to use. It’s not a bad idea (and plenty of fun) to go around to different orchards and fruitstands this fall to do a little taste-testing.

There are a few different ways you can go about it. You can graft onto an apple tree which is already growing on your place. If you want small, early-bearing trees, or extra-hardy ones for your orchard, you can buy special rootstock. Or if you want named varieties of apples, like the types described below, grafting stock can be purchased. For the price of four or five conventional apple trees, you can buy rootstock and grafting stock for an orchard of 50 trees of the most unique and choice sorts!

The biggest advantage to growing seedling rootstock is that you have the chance to select the most vigorous and hardy seedlings. However, think about timing–it takes a lot longer to grow bearing trees from seeds than from other methods.

To start, remove the seeds from any fully ripened fruit. (A helpful hint: Take the seeds and drop them into a bowl of water; the ones that sink are the ones most likely to grow well.) Once you’ve removed the seeds, chill them for eight to 10 weeks, then mix the seeds with moist peat moss and keep them in a dark place at about 35°F. (Presumably, the chilling could be done in a refrigerator if you don’t have a cold cellar.)

Now as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring, plant the seeds about one inch deep and one foot apart. The vegetable garden is a good place to start the seeds, because they are likely to get the weeding and other attention they need. At the end of the first growing season, remove the least vigorous ones; the next spring, remove any that were damaged by cold over the winter. When the trees are 3/8 inch in diameter at ground level (usually at about two years old), they are large enough for grafting.

Since a rootstock and the material grafted onto it becomes one single organism, the two parts naturally affect each other. The rootstock influences such things as the ultimate size of the tree, its hardiness, the age at which it comes into bearing, and the heaviness of the crop. Some of the most popular types are the dwarfing and semi-dwarfing strains of the Malling series, developed in England. They produce smaller trees, but full-sized fruit. Many Malling rootstock also bring trees into bearing at an earlier age. Be forewarned that some rootstock and grafting stocks are incompatible with each other, and the grafts may not take, or they might succumb to infection. One way to handle this is to use two different rootstocks.

If your orchard site isn’t ready, you can plant your rootstock trees in rows at the back of your vegetable garden. Then after the season goes by, just transplant them to the orchard. For example, my rootstock was planted in our garden in Maine, grafted there in August, and then shipped to our new home in Nova Scotia in early November, where they were immediately planted. All survived and grew happily the following season.

We collected all of our grafting stock from three sources. We used the old apple trees from our first place in the country, which held enormous sentimental value for us. We perpetuated two huge, nearly dead trees which bore delicious fruit, one russet and the other golden. Then we found a friendly orchardist in a nearby apple-growing region, a delightful man in his 80s, who knew the history of every tree in his orchard. He told us about the many old variety trees that he owned and planned to replace–Kings, Russets, Ben Davises, Spys, and Wageners.

We bought several different kinds of apples that fall, decided which ones we liked best, and then returned for more the next fall. When we asked the old orchardist to sell us some wonderful grafting stock, he was notably pleased with our interest and presented them to us with his best wishes.

The Grafting Principle

Before getting into the specific techniques of grafting, it’s helpful to understand the principle that lies behind it. Only one cell layer of a tree’s branch or trunk is capable of healing a wound. This layer, which lies between the bark and the wood, is called the cambium. The principle of grafting is simply: 1) to cut bud-bearing pieces off of the parent tree in such a way as to expose the maximum amount of cambium, and then 2) to attach this piece to a place on the new tree where a large amount of cambium has also been exposed.

Where the two cambiums touch, the cells will multiply and fuse the two pieces into one organism. If the two cambiums don’t touch, the part which was put onto the new tree will die, and the tree will just heal over the wound. Therefore, it’s essential to put the grafted material in the right place, and to bind the graft tightly to keep it there.

T-Bud Grafting

When it comes to dealing with young trees, try T-bud grafting. It is quick and provides greater chance for success than other grafting methods. It is also the method of choice when you plan to raise your own seedling rootstock or grow dwarf trees.

The first step to T-bud grafting is cutting your stock, in this case called budsticks. A budstick is a terminal shoot which is about the thickness of a pencil. You can test for bud maturity by pulling downwards on a leaf in the middle of a shoot. Buds are a good age for grafting when the leaf stem will come off cleanly, without tearing. As soon as you cut the budstick off the tree, remove the top of the shoot and the leaves, leaving about 1/4 inch of each leaf’s stem to use later as a handle.

Wrap the bottoms of the budsticks in moist material and keep them in plastic bags. If they dry out, so will the buds, so do your grafting as soon as possible. Although grafting is generally done over winter, some people prefer to graft in August, when the bark of the rootstock slips easily from the wood underneath.

Make a T-shaped cut through the rootstock’s bark at least four inches above the ground, by pressing the bark with a knife. Make your cuts quickly and smoothly with a very sharp knife (ripped or bruised tissue may not heal, and if you make the cut on the north side of the tree, the graft will be less likely to dry out). With your knife blade, lift the flaps that you’ve just made in order to loosen them, and then cut a bud shield from your budstick. (Don’t use fruit buds because they’ll bloom in the spring instead of making a shoot right away.)

Now starting just below the bud, make your cut just deeply enough to remove a little wood. Then, holding the bud shield by the leaf-stem handle, slip it into the T on the rootstock. Cut off the part of the shield that extends above the top of the T and wrap the graft tightly with a few rubber strips to keep the two parts moist and in close contact.

Several kinds of strips are available for wrapping, including ones with staples for attaching the loose end after wrapping. I find the plain strips are easiest and most secure; the loose end is just tucked underneath the wrapping. Two strips may be necessary to wrap the graft, thought it’s not necessary to cover up the whole area. (The bud shouldn’t be covered.) Eventually your strips will rot off. Try to graft several buds on each tree to be sure that at least one will take. My husband and I found it easiest and most efficient to work separately. We budded 50 trees in about four hours.

Helping Grafted Stock Grow

Bud grafting does take some skill–but it’s quickly developed. Those who aren’t swift-and-sure knife wielders should practice on some other material first. I went down to our wild chokecherry thicket and spent an hour or so grafting buds to stems, until I felt fairly confident about the operation.

The next spring, we inspected all of our trees dozens of times. We were ecstatic when our babies began to grow. We cut off the tops of the trees–just above the graft–on which a graft had taken. Doing this forces all of the rootstock’s energy into the development of that bud. From just one bud, a whole tree will eventually grow. The rootstock will make buds, shoots, and suckers, too, which must be pinched off as they form. If two grafts took on one tree, one will have to be cut off. This causes me the same kind of pain I feel when thinning a row of vegetable seedlings; but like thinning, I know it is essential for the health of the plant. We procrastinated a little before cutting out the extra shoots just in case any were injured.

Sometimes it takes a while for a bud to swell, even after the rootstock branches have opened their leaves. Their will to survive, however, is amazing–on a few of our trees, a bud had died or been knocked off during the winter, and from underneath it another bud grew and became a shoot. So don’t be surprised if you are happier with your new orchard in June than in April. Still, you can expect anywhere from 30 to 90% of your T-bud grafts to take. On our trees, about 66% took, and 23 out of 25 trees were successfully grafted on the first try. It’s a good idea to tie each shoot to a stake to help it grow upright. Now all you have to do is take good care of your little trees, and in three or four years you’ll be picking your first fruit.

Chip Budding

Also called plate budding, this is another ancient technique which has only recently become the preferred method of grafting. Despite the fact that it is an extremely simple procedure, it is probably the most effective method of grafting available to us today.

The first step is to take the stock you have chosen and wipe it clean. Then, firmly hold the rootstock and make a downward cut in the side of the stock. You should hold your knife so that the bottom of the cut is horizontal at its base. Then make a second cut (one or two inches long) downward which will include the tiny bud shield. When your two different cuts meet, the little piece of stock will fall off. (You can just throw this away.) That new space is where the new prepared stock will fit in.

When you are making ties with this method, make sure they are firm. Also, if the bud is very prominent, you can make your tie right over the bud. If it’s not, you can cover the area with thin plastic strips. Coat your ties with wax when using twine or thread. Then seal the whole area again with plastic or waxed tape. And that’s all there is to it.

Scion Grafting

Scion (pronounced SY-un ) grafting is another technique, in which the grafting stock, or scion, is a shoot with several buds. It may be grafted to either a branch of a big tree or the trunk of a small rootstock. Scion wood is also a pencil-size terminal shoot developed during the current growing season. It may be collected in the fall, after the leaves are off, and stored in a cool (35°F) cellar in a box of moist leaves, sand, or moss. Or scion wood can be cut in early spring, just before grafting. However, there is the risk of using wood that has been winter-killed. Scion grafting is done before the buds begin to swell, so you can’t tell whether the scion is alive unless you make a tiny nick in the bark with your fingernail to be sure that the underlying tissue is green.

In whip and tongue grafting, the scion and rootstock (or branch) are exactly the same size and specially cut to lock together. Or scions can be inserted into branches up to two inches in diameter. A three-bud scion is used for these methods. In cleft and bark grafting, use a very fine-toothed saw and cut carefully to avoid damaging the bark of the stub. When placing a scion, make sure that the cambiums of the scion and branch are in contact.

All scion grafts must be sealed very well with rubber splicing tape and emulsified asphalt or grafting wax, since the wounds are quite large and deep. The joint must not dry out. If you use grafting wax, you should check it every so often during the growing season and be sure to fill in any cracks. Two scions are usually inserted into the branch stub in cleft and bark grafting. If they both take, one will have to be removed. The best time to do this is at the end of the first growing season when the grafts have healed.

Frameworking and Top-Working

If you have a vigorous, hardy apple tree already on your place, but wish that it bore better fruit, you can framework it to convert the whole tree top to a new variety. (It’s better to do the work over two years or more in order not to shock the tree.) Cut off all its branches at a point where they are about two inches in diameter, and using cleft, bark, or oblique side grafting, put on scions of the desired variety. Or use smaller branches and do whip and tongue grafting. Remove all shoots, spurs, and small branches of the original tree top. In only a few seasons, your tree will bear a full crop of the new kind of apple.

If you want a previously grafted tree to bear more than one variety of apple, or if you just want to add a few different branches to a wild apple tree, then top-work the tree. The grafting process is the same as that for frameworking, but less extensive. All you have to remove from the tree are those shoots that spring up below the graft.

All this may sound like a lot of bother to you. Perhaps it is. But an orchard you make yourself is both satisfying and rewarding–just wait until you take a bite of your first home-grown fruit!

Old-Time Apple Variety Rootstocks

Malling Merton (MM) 106
Approximate Size*: 12 to 15 feet
Heavy bearing, well-rooted, a promising new variety

East Malling (EM) VII
Approximate Size: 10 to 12 feet
Grows quickly; adaptable; shallow-rooted–so plant deeply and give support; most commonly used semi-dwarf rootstock; not especially heavy yielding when young

East Malling (EM) 26
Approximate Size: 8 to 10 feet
Grows well on poorer soils; more vigorous than EM IX.

East Malling (EM) IX
Approximate Size: 7 to 8 feet
Needs very fertile soil, support, and extra attention; produces large fruit, bears early.

Malus Domestica
Approximate Size: 30 feet high
Currently one of the most vigorous of all rootstock. Good for general compatibility.

East Malling (M7A, semi-dwarf)
Approximate Size: 12 to 16 feet
Good for growing on heavy soil, and are very winter-hardy.

East Malling (M27)
Approximate Size: about 6 feet
Resistant to fireblight disease (big problem among apple trees in the South); will bear fruit a year after planted; very hardy.

*The size of the tree depends partly on what variety is grafted to the rootstock.

Nurseries Selling Apple Tree Rootstocks

If you are interested in mail ordering one or more of the rootstocks listed above, try one of these retail nurseries:

Raintree Nursery
391 Butts Road
Morton, WA   98356

Rocky Meadow Nursery
360 Rocky Meadow Road NW
New Salisbury, IN   47161

One Green World/Northwoods Nursery
28696 S. Cramer Road
Molalla, OR   97038

2310 West South Range Road
North Lima, OH   44452