Establishing a tree-based perennial agriculture system can cost a lot of money, especially if you´re planning on buying $30 dollar bagged fruit trees at your local orchard. Luckily, you can propagate many of the trees you are planning to plant by yourself. One of the easiest and best known ways to propagate many different trees, bushes, and other perennial plants is through planting seeds. Many nitrogen-fixing trees and bushes can easily be grown from seed, but other species are best propagated through other vegetative techniques that we will introduce below.
Grafting, Layering, and Air Grafting
Grafting is a horticultural technique whereby tissues of plants are joined so as to continue their growth together. The upper part of the combined plant is called the scion while the lower part is called the rootstock. Since most fruit and nut trees won´t grow true to seed (meaning that the seed from the Gala apple you grow will produce fruit that doesn´t resemble Gala apples at all), the way to reproduce a certain type of fruit or nut that you like is through grafting.
Let´s say that you have an old crab apple tree on your land that produces small, sour fruits that no one but the birds enjoys. You can graft a bud or a small branch from a delicious, heirloom apple tree on your grandma´s old farm onto that Crab Apple tree. If done correctly and the cambium layer (or green layer inside the bark) of the two species are touching, that bud or branch will grow into an heirloom apple bearing tree. There are several different types of grafting methods you can use including cleft grafts, bud grafts, whip and tongue, etc. While it does take practice for a graft to be successful, the good news is that once you master the art of grafting, you can reproduce all the fruit and nut trees you need for your land.
Furthermore, grafting techniques can also be used to renovate old and unproductive fruit and nut trees on your farm. When my peach orchard was growing old and production began to slow, I cut several of the trees down to stump height, used a machete to open a horizontal cut across the stump, and placed small branches with exposed cambium layers into the cut on the stump. Within two years I had new production from those renovated trees and also succeeded in diversifying the types of peaches (and nectarines) I was producing in my orchard.
Layering is another propagative technique where a part of the parent plant is placed underground in order to create its own root system. Once the plant is established, it is severed from the parent plant through pruning. Layering occurs naturally in many species and is a great way to propagate plants that send out multiple shoots near the base of the parent plant.
Air grafting is a great way to reproduce quality trees from the prunings you were planning to make on those trees. To do an air graft, pick a medium-sized branch (between 1 and 4 inches in diameter) and cut a ring around the bark exposing the cambium layer. Once the cambium is exposed, cover that exposed ring area with fertile topsoil that is slightly humid and cover it with a dark colored plastic wrap (any plastic bag will work). Through this method, you are trying “to fool” the branch into thinking that it is underground. Over the course of a few weeks, the exposed ring you cut will start to send out roots into the soil surrounding it. Once you see a fairly well-developed root system, you cut the branch below the new root system with a pruning saw, and plant your newly propagated tree somewhere else on your property.
Starting Your Own Nursery
Starting a nursery to propagate your own plants will save you thousands of dollars as you collect the plant and genetic material you need to begin to diversify and plant out your land. However, starting a nursery is also a great way to make money through selling the excess plants you propagate and grow. A successful nursery is considered to be the most profitable way to take advantage of a small piece of land. If you don´t have any parent material to begin with, you can purchase root stock fairly cheap. One established apple tree will offer you all the scions you need to graft onto that rootstock.
A good way to get started with a nursery is through purchasing a one or two trees of every different type fruit, nut, or ornamental plant you plan on selling. If you don´t want to purchase rootstock, simply find a wild apple tree and take cuttings from that tree for your rootstock for your grafted apples. Local rootstocks tend to be hardier and better adapted to the local conditions. As long as the local rootstock is the same genus, it will accept any type of graft. For example, a pear rootstock will accept an apple tree scion and a lemon tree rootstock will accept an orange tree scion.
Spend a year getting the trees well established on your land. Once they have several branches, you can begin to cut branches and buds to graft onto your established rootstock. You could also try and air graft small branches as well.