Grafting Fruit Trees: Why Not?

by Debby Hatch

If you’re spending some of these winter days pouring over fruit tree catalogs, imagining new plums and cherries, pears and apples, maybe you should add grafting to your studies.   Learning what it is, how it’s done and why people do it may inspire you to graft some new varieties onto your existing trees or start some new trees that strike your fancy.

Grafting is the process of joining scion wood—dormant shoots of last season’s growth—to a rootstock: the part that supplies the roots, anything from a small, rooted slip to a fully-grown tree.  The result is fruit identical to fruit from the tree that produced the scion wood.

When Carol Noyes, a Lopezian passionate about fruit trees, asked if she could come over and take some scion wood from our pear trees, we quickly agreed, eager to learn more about how grafting works.

On a recent afternoon Carol arrived with her pruning shears and grafting tools.  Gazing up into an Orcas pear tree full of last year’s growth, Carol explained that she was looking for leaf buds, not flower buds.  “Leaf buds are flatter,” she added, clipping several pencil width shoots each about a foot long.

“Let’s pretend this is the rootstock,” she said, beginning a grafting demonstration by shoving a branch into the ground.  “Then this is the scion wood. You put it into the grafting tool and click.”  The result looked like a jigsaw puzzle piece cut into the end of the scion wood. “Next you find something about that diameter on the rootstock and cut in the opposite direction.  Then, you slip the scion wood cut over the rootstock cut.”

“You’re fitting cambium—the thin green layer of growing cells just below the bark—to cambium.  If it’s a good fit, it will likely work,” she said stretching tape around the graft.  Finally, Carol cut off the other end of the scion piece, leaving three leaf buds, and explained that she’d seal this end with Elmer’s glue.

“Cambium matching and keeping it from drying out.  These are the two big secrets of success.”  Gathering up her grafting tool and tape, Carol added that while she uses other tools, like a knife, and other methods of grafting, like side grafting to accommodate thin scion wood and thick rootstock, she’s had the highest success rates when she uses her grafting tool.

Turning to why she started grafting fruit trees, Carol said: “I read an article maybe ten years ago about an arborist in Southern California who had only half an acre but he had one apple tree with sixty-three varieties on it!  That’s too many for most people, but it inspired me and I thought why not graft?”

“I’ve grafted a lot of apples and some cherries and plums and I want to try pears.  I’m a bit of a collector,” she added, laughing, as she showed us a photo of an especially lovely apple, a Beauty of Bath. “Of course I had to have a scion!”

Carol plans to raise the many fruit trees she’s grafting using space-saving techniques like cordons—single trunks spaced 2-3 feet apart and trained at an angle—and Belgian fences where lateral branches of closely spaced trees are trained to make a lattice pattern. “I may even do a tunnel here and there or a gazebo like one I saw once using eight trees in a twelve foot circle.  I want to play with my food!”

Referring to Lopez orchardist Eric Hall as another of her inspirations, she agreed with Eric’s observation about grafting: “the first people who centuries ago realized the possibilities of grafting will never get recognition, but theirs was one of those genius moments.”

First published in the Islands’ Weekly, February 2009

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