Grafting Amateur

– Posted in: Garden chores

When we moved into this place there were three original apple trees of undetermined origin, a pear tree of also undetermined stock, and a concord grape vine. The three apple trees continue to plug along, producing fruit, or attempting to produce, every year. Harvest from the grape vine has been erratic as well, again due mostly to late frosts in spring and early frosts in fall. Most recently the grape vine was afflicted with black rot. I used this as an excuse to move the grape vine out of its old location, which wasn’t very good in my opinion. In the process of moving the grape vine I managed to get five plantable sections . . . I could have planted more sections, but five was enough to fill up the length where I was planting.

Then there is the pear tree. Of all the original stock on this property the pear tree has been the ultimate problem child. I don’t know what variety it is. Perhaps part of the problem is that the previous owner planted a pear type that isn’t meant to grow in this climate. In any case, this pear tree was small and rather uninspiring to begin with and in the many years that we’ve lived here it produced fruit only once . . . three pears if I remember right. Sometime shortly after that point it contracted either an infestation of some time of bug or else a disease because most of the tree promptly died. But, oddly enough, not all of it. One, and only one, branch of the pear tree remained alive. As a source of amusement, and an object lesson in hope I suppose, I left this sawed-down-one-branch-stump-of-a-pear-tree supported with wire to grow or die as it would.

The pear tree continued to live. Since it was very small I was content to let it struggle away–until now. The pear tree was planted smack up against the concord grape vine, right under the shadow of one of the apple trees (what the previous owners were thinking planting those three so close together I’ve no idea). Now that the concord grape vine was moved, the pear tree was the only thing left in this space I wanted opened up for something more useful. As the pear tree has never really produced a harvest and in its diminished state likely never would there wasn’t any good reason to keep the tree hogging space.

I could have just cut the tree down. But as I considered the idea a thought formed in my mind. Last year the big willow tree fell down and smashed several limbs on one of the apple trees. This past winter rabbits chewed all the bark off the twigs on the lowest limb. This pretty well completely trashed the limb and I had resigned myself to cutting the limb off. Then the idea came to me: why not trim back all the ravaged twigs and graft various small portions of the good pear limb onto the apple tree?

For those of you who are not educated on this sort of thing, grafting pear onto apple is actually possible. You can actually cross graft several different types of fruit trees, but I don’t remember all of them. What inspired this idea in me is an article I read about someone who actually did graft a whole bunch of different fruits onto an apple tree. One limb produced one type of fruit and another limb produced another type, and so on.

I’ve never grafted before. The entire repertoire of my knowledge on this subject consists in what I’ve read and my skill . . . well, my skill is yet to be proved. In theory, and I suppose, in practice (at least once you’ve got the hang of it), the traditional basic fruit tree grafting is pretty easy. It’s done all the time. It’s what the fruit industry is built upon. All the fruit trees that grow the same type of apple are grafted scions. The general ease of this procedure being acknowledged, I think grafting onto a full grown tree is slightly harder, at least because working with a branch that is still attached to a tree is more awkward than working with a small bit of root stock.

No one has ever showed me how to graft and I’ve no real idea of how successful a first attempt generally is. However, I was game to try. The pear tree had to go, and the apple limb would end up sawed off if it wasn’t put to use, so I didn’t have much to lose.

You can buy special knives for grafting and special tape to cover up the graft joint. Then you can also buy stuff to put on the graft joint to help retain the moisture. They say any sharp knife should work and you can use electrician’s tape, so that is what I decided to do.

The first thing I did was sharpen my knife. Once I figured it was sharp enough I took all of my equipment outside to begin work.

It quickly became apparent that what looks pretty easy in the book isn’t quite so easy in reality. Being acquainted with Murphy’s Law I wasn’t surprised but it was still frustrating. There are several different methods you can use to graft but I was sticking to the easiest. In this method you cut both the root stock and the graft material at an angle and then place them together and bind them tight.

I learned a few things pretty quickly. First off, cutting two matching angles isn’t as easy as you might hope. Second, there is a reason you’re told not to use mature wood. Third, there is a right and a wrong way to use a knife when grafting. Take these three all together and yes, one of the first things I did was cut myself.

It happened while I was working on my first graft. I had chosen stock that was too thick and I was having difficulty cutting it and was attempting to correct the angle of my cut. I was holding the knife improperly due to my frustration in trying to get a correct angle to the cut. In the back of my mind I knew it was a very bad idea, but the more impatient part of my mind said I had everything under control and I would be careful and it would be only this once and–oops.

One thing that can be said is, the sharper a knife is the less it hurts when it cuts you. Ever notice that when you hit your finger with a hammer it hurts like all get out but if you accidentally cut yourself with a sharp piece of glass you can give yourself a really bad cut and scarcely notice? In the same manner I wasn’t initially sure if I had cut myself. I felt the blade make fast contact with the back of my finger and my instinctive thought was that, being a sharp blade, I had just cut myself. But it didn’t hurt, and on initial examination it looked as if I had just scraped the surface.

Something didn’t seem quite right so I took a closer look. Further examination showed that I was indeed cut. How badly was the next question. Could I just keep working or had I better go get something to put over the wound? Experience has taught me that for cuts that don’t hit a major artery you can often have a few seconds grace . . . somehow the blood sometimes doesn’t start leaking out right away, especially if it is a very clean cut. With this in mind I looked at the cut on my finger and saw that blood was just starting to come out. I decided it would not just be a few drops and I’d better get a band-aid to stem the flow.

I was down to the front door by the time my finger started bleeding in earnest. In the bathroom I washed off the initial blood, then wiped off more blood with a towel as I dried my finger. Soon as I had my finger dry I slapped on a band-aid. Then I went back out to work.

After cutting myself I recalled to mind the proper method for holding a knife when grafting. You have to hold the blade against your thumb. This gives you much better control and if it ever does slip you don’t end up cutting yourself. It is a little strange, but feels quite natural once you get the hang of it. I didn’t cut myself again, but I continued to bleed as I worked. The blood leaked out from around the band-aid and onto the adjoining finger and onto the tape I was using as well. Eventually it stopped.

The rest of the grafting went without mishap. How successful my efforts were only a few months time will tell. I suspect my chances are something like that of winning the lottery. After all, it was my first attempt. I got the hang of the cutting procedure a little bit but taping the two halves together never felt like it went right. For a successful graft you need the two pieces lined up precisely, and I always found that whenever I did this I ended up having my fingers exactly where I needed to put tape. So, things ended up slipping and I’d try to readjust. I’d tape and then wonder if things were still aligned right under the tape and generally think that I probably ought to laugh at myself.

The material I’ve read said it was good to apply wax to the cut to help retain moisture. After I had everything throughly taped up with electricians tape I wasn’t sure how wax was really going to help retain any more moisture. For a bit I considered just skipping that step, but then I decided to be a good little boy and do everything. Not having a chunk of wax I could melt I decided to make do with the supplies I had on hand. I got the stub of a candle used when the power was out and used that to drip wax onto the taped joints. Sad to say, it ended up looking rather pathetic and I don’t think the dripped wax added anything. Looking at my efforts, I can’t help but think that if a professional grafter came along he would have his laugh of the month looking at what I’ve done.

Most likely my attempt will end in abysmal failure. But it was worth the learning experience if nothing else. And, until the pear grafts shrivel up I can entertain the fantasy that it will actually work and I will have pear wood growing on an apple tree. That would really tickle me.

Yeah, dream on, Rundy.

I will keep you posted. If even one graft takes I’ll count it as a success.

About the Author

At age fifteen, Rundy decided he wanted to write for his living. He is currently working on a novel, although it is not the novel he started at fifteen. When not working on the novel, he might be riding his bike, feeding his chickens, helping his neighbors, messing around with web design and computers in general, or writing on his blog, which discusses other topics in addition to gardening. USDA Hardiness Zone: 4 AHS Heat Zone: 3 Location: rural; Southern Tier of NY Geographic type: foothills of Appalachian Mountains Soil Type: acid clay Experience level: advanced beginner Particular interests: fruits, vegetables, major landscaping, chickens and other poultry

In its own way, frost may be one of the most beautiful things to happen in your garden all year . . . Don’t miss it. Like all true beauty, it is fleeting. It will grace your garden for but a short while this morning. . . . For this moment, embrace frost as the beautiful gift that it is.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

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