Grafting – The Art of Making Your Own Trees
One of the most important elements while building our food producing systems is to acquire the genetic diversity by way of tree seedlings, heirloom vegetable seeds, accumulators, companions, soil microbiology etc. I would like to draw your attention to trees particularly which are usually costly if bought from nurseries.
While the S.T.U.N method of Mark Sheppard is also very acceptable to grow fruit trees, grafting is still a nice skill to have for a permaculturist. I now grow and graft my trees and exceeded the numbers I bought from nurseries. Of course, in my little back and front yard, I don’t have enough space to grow them all. I give them to friends and planted mostly for Grandpa Bill to open areas.
I collect seeds of my Granny Smith apple; I have read somewhere that granny smith seedling’s root system is much more prolific than the others. I can graft pear or apple on them but I usually graft apples to apples and pears to pears. I simply believe that sap sugar compatibility is important to carry the nutrients, minerals, and phytochemicals to the fruit that result in higher nutrient density.
I am also collecting any store bought fruit seeds like nashi, peach, nectarine and plums throughout the summer in small containers on a window sill.
I don’t do cold stratification in the fridge anymore. I collect seeds in summer, prepare my large 39L root pouches and bury the seeds around autumn to the depth of their thickness. Some mulch on top and water to keep moist. Root pouch works well as the drainage is very well taken care of, even if the rain is bucketing down, they will be alright. Winter times will do the required cold stratification naturally.
Wikipedia definition of stratification is: “In horticulture, stratification is the process of treating stored or collected seed prior to sowing to simulate natural winter conditions that a seed must endure before germination. Some seed species undergo an embryonic dormancy phase, and generally will not sprout until this dormancy is broken.”
I used to do cold stratification in the fridge and transfer to soil but the survival rate was less. Growing in good soil in a larger space gives more chance to seedlings and they actually grow faster with the available nutrients and mycorrhiza that is naturally there. You can also collect mushrooms naturally growing among the same kind of trees you collected seeds from and sprinkle them on the seeds. The symbiotic relationship will help the seedlings to draw nutrients from the soil and grow into a better root stocks.
You may need to feed the root pouches during spring and summer to prevent stunted growth. A homemade liquid fish fertilizer will do the job.
Once the seedlings grow for a season, I transfer them into large pots in winter while they are dormant, starting from the larger and thicker ones. The ones thick like a pinkie gets a graft around 4 weeks before the apple bloom. I usually use a saddle graft with my grafting scissor. I have tried some bud grafts as well. Saddle graft is the only graft I do these days for the young seedlings.
Grafting has some rules and with a little bit of care and watching some YT videos, you will get the idea and be successful. Stephen Hayes is my go to person on YT for grafting videos. Don’t make 3 or 5 grafts but make like 20 or 30 so that the ones that accept the graft will still be enough for your use.
I keep the unsuccessful grafts and remove the scion. This lets the seedling to grow normally and I can try grafting them again next winter.
If you don’t want to graft, concentrate on olive, peach, nectarine, cherry, plum, apricot, nashi and all sorts of berries. These will produce almost true to type where the fruit will taste like the mother tree if not better. Most berries grow from cuttings or air layering too.
A plum and a nectarine grown from seeds thrown by my kids in my garden are fruiting for the last 2 years. Nectarine has this strange beautiful perfumed aroma and eating a fruit from this tree is an experience out of this world. I tried to graft the plum and it didn’t accept anything. The branch died off too. I let it grow as a screening between me and the neighbour. Boy! I should have done that earlier; dark, matt, purple plums as big as walnuts so juicy and aromatic that I need to fight with possums to get some. Luckily the plum has got these big, hidden-under-leaves, spikes; possums don’t know about (hopefully).
I have never tried citrus seeds though people swear that lemon seeds grow to a nice productive lemon tree. I’ve read that drying the citrus seed is not good, they should be buried in soil as soon as extracted from the fruit. Cherry seeds are also the same.
I have grown walnut and chestnut from store bought nuts too. Almond also works. No need for grafting on these. They will produce an acceptable crop for you, deer and chipmunks. Sometimes hard-shelled seeds like apricot and almond require scarification that is grinding part of the shell in order to thin it without punching a hole so that water can penetrate after winter and break the dormancy of the embryo.
Wikipedia definition of scarification is: “Scarification in botany involves weakening, opening, or otherwise altering the coat of a seed to encourage germination. Scarification is often done mechanically, thermally, and chemically. The seeds of many plant species are often impervious to water and gasses, thus preventing or delaying germination. Any process designed to make the testa (seed coat) more permeable to water and gasses (and thus more likely to germinate) is known as scarification.”
If you see a nice apple, pear, plum or apricot at your friend’s garden and would like the same fruit, your only option is to take some 1-year-old samples from the mother tree (scion wood) and graft these on your root stocks.
Commercial operations states that a 10-year-old tree is not suitable for taking scion wood as it would already have bloomed 7 or 8 times and contracted pollen-born virus diseases.
The scion wood should not have any fruit spurs, water sprouts or terminal buds on top. It should have buds close together and should be straight. 1-year-old growth wouldn’t have any fruit spurs and you can cut the terminal bud on top. I have grafted some scions with terminal buds on them; they took off but the growth was slow.
Water sprouts are fast growing vertical branches and the distance between buds are longer. They don’t make good scion wood. Use horizontal branches with lots of buds on them.
Scion wood should be about 5 to 10mm diameter but it should also match the diameter of the root stock. This is important to match the cambium where the nutrients flow right under the skin of trees. Use a caliper to measure the root stock and the scion wood to make sure that the cambium layer will match when grafted.
If scion wood is bigger or smaller diameter than the root stock; make sure at least one side of scion matches the cambium of the root stock. The other side should be covered with wax or grafting paste to prevent over drying or diseases. I used natural beeswax mixed with linseed oil which makes it pliable and doesn’t dry easily under the sun.
Once I think the union is done and the cambiums matching, I use a grafting tape and cover the graft union and 2cm up and down.
I usually cut the scion wood from the mother tree during the grafting but you can collect 30-40cm long scion woods from friends’ trees, wrap them with moist paper kitchen towels and store them in ziplock bags in the fridge for 4 to 8 weeks till you graft. Make sure buds are not damaged under pressure. Some serious scion wood providers also dip the ends of the wood in wax to prevent drying and couple drops of bleach into a bucket of water to moist the kitchen towels to prevent diseases.
“In a waxing moon, when light increases towards a full moon, sap flow is drawn up. This is the most suitable time for applying liquid fertilisers, pruning and grafting as increased sap flow produces new growth more quickly” says the article from Richard Telford here at PRI. I have never followed moon planting or grafting but worth to try if there is a slight chance of increasing success on our grafts.
The tools required for grafting are a good, sharp grafting knife, grafting tape, secateurs with a piece of cloth and methylated spirit bottle and if you are doing guerrilla grafting; a grafting scissor as carrying a grafting knife would raise some eyebrows. You can get all these tools from garden centres or online shops.
If there are 2 main branches growing on the seedling; I leave one of the branches to help with the pollination and you never know, you may hit a good apple or pear on that branch. I don’t do double grafting with different cultivars. The reason being is usually one of them takes over in the coming years and the other disappears. Instead, you can do “2 trees in the same hole” method with 2 different apple cultivars (or any other fruit).
If you are in a dry location, you might want to cover the pot entirely with a plastic bag and punch some holes at the top for airing. This method will keep the scion wood from drying too much. I have never done it and most of my grafts are okay with dry Canberra weather. I protect them from the sun though.
I think grafting is one of those emotionally fulfilling skills. It will be a very happy and Zen moment when you look at your trees 10 years later and think that you have grafted them. And if you teach this skill to your kids, it will make you feel even better. Happy grafting.