Grafting is a useful life skill that we recommend to any gardener who loves their fruit trees.
There are many different techniques, some for summer and some for winter. Luckily, they’re all based on the same theory.
Grafting takes wood from one fruit tree, of a known variety (called the scion, or grafting wood) and joins it to another fruit tree. The host tree might be a rootstock, or possibly an already grafted tree.
The different techniques just provide different methods for creating a strong and permanent union.
Once you grasp the theory, you’ll understand that the actual grafting technique you use doesn’t really matter. Each method better suits different tree types, rootstocks, branch sizes, times of the year, or varieties.
It’s such a cool way of getting functional fruit trees in your garden for free that we recommend everyone learn it. There are lots of different methods, but the main ones that we teach are:
- Whip-tongue grafting
- Cleft grafting
- Bark grafting
- Chip budding
- Root grafting
That doesn’t mean other techniques won’t work or aren’t worthwhile. We just prefer to stick to teaching the “tried-and-true” techniques that we’ve been using successfully for generations.
When is grafting mainly used?
Grafting is useful when you want to change or add varieties in your garden without changing trees. We love this example of a tree that’s been grafted to include 250 apple varieties.
It’s also the best way to preserve a heritage variety, or add a polliniser to a tree that flowers well but doesn’t produce much fruit. Grafting is also a great way to turn a useless fruit tree (e.g. a cherry plum) into a useful tree (e.g. your favourite apricot variety).
Most importantly, it’s the cheapest and easiest way to grow your own fruit tree from scratch so you never have to buy a tree from a nursery again!
Want to see a couple of practical ways to put it into action? Sometimes you have to “see it to do it”, so here are some practical examples.
Saving a broken tree
One of the simplest grafting techniques is called “whip tongue”. The next photo is a beautiful example of a healed graft. It clearly shows the whips and tongues on both scion and rootstock.
The photo above is a Tilton apricot that was grafted onto a plum rootstock.
In fact, the tree was planted as an apricot tree in our orchard a couple of years ago. Then it met with misadventure (broken by a passing kangaroo!), so the top of the tree was broken off.
The rootstock (which was a plum) survived. Before long, it put out a new shoot that we were able to graft onto.
You can see there is good contact between the cambium layers of both the rootstock and the scion. The cambium layer is just under the bark. This layer is where the new tissue that binds the two pieces of wood permanently together starts growing.
Making a new tree from scratch – for free
The photo below shows Katie’s dad teaching Katie and Sas how to do a technique called “root grafting” at the kitchen table.
This is a variation on whip-tongue grafting. It’s also a very cool way of growing new trees from a piece of root. In this example, the root piece is used as the rootstock. This is a fast way to create a new tree because you don’t have to grow the rootstock first.
Any time you’re planting a new fruit tree, just harvest a piece of the roots. Root pruning when you plant a tree is quite common anyway, you won’t be doing the tree any harm. (Just don’t remove too many roots).
We also recommend pruning the top of your tree when you plant it, and guess what? That’s a great source of scion wood.
All you have to do is graft your scion directly onto the root piece and ‘voila’ – a whole new tree. And it’s basically made out of waste materials that would otherwise go into the compost.
Changing varieties on a mature tree in your garden
Another way to save or repurpose a tree is to regraft the whole tree to a new variety. Here’s one we prepared earlier:
This is a great way of turning a useless tree (e.g. a variety you don’t like, or a tree that produces inedible or dull fruit, like a cherry plum) into a useful and productive tree that will add to your food security by growing fruit you want to eat.
You can supercharge the process by grafting a different variety onto each limb. This way you can grow 5, 6, or more varieties on the same tree. You’ll avoid the expense, bother or space issues of planting and looking after multiple trees!
When is the right time to graft?
Most grafting is done in late winter/early spring. Two conditions need to be met:
- you collected and stored some scion wood in advance, while the donor tree was dormant in winter;
- the tree you’re grafting onto has started to show some spring activity like growing flowers, leaves, or shoots.
The exception is budding, sometimes call summer budding, which is explained in this blog. This (and chip budding) are both summer grafting techniques.
Summer budding is one of the easier methods because you don’t need to collect the scion wood in advance. The wood can be (and in fact should be) harvested on the same day. This saves forward planning. However, depending on the situation, the tree may need some preparation in advance.
If you’re planning to use budding on a mature tree, you’ll need to prune it hard a few months beforehand. This ensures that there are strong one-year-old shoots in the tree to bud onto.
Grafting can seem very complicated—until you do it. Yes, there are lots of different skills involved, and you need to get comfortable using a knife.
You may even have many failures along the way, but don’t let that put you off. Like any skill, it takes practise to get perfect. The sooner you get started, the sooner you can start practicing!