How to Graft an Apple Tree

It is such a great skill to know how to graft an apple tree. In fact, people have been grafting for thousands of years! In this article we will cover:

Why Graft an Apple Tree?

You may be asking yourself, why would I need to know how to graft an apple tree? Well here are some reasons why.

  1. To make the tree stronger and more productive:
    • Grafting the scion onto the rootstock of a hardy and vigorous tree will make the tree grow stronger and produce more fruit.
  2. To protect the tree against disease:
    • Certain rootstocks are resistant to diseases that can harm apple trees, like fire blight, apple scab, and root rot. By grafting the scion onto one of these resistant rootstocks, you can help protect your tree against these diseases.
  3. To control the size of the tree:
    • Different rootstocks can affect how tall and wide a tree grows. If you want a smaller tree that’s easier to manage, you can choose a dwarfing rootstock to graft onto.
  4. To introduce new apple varieties onto a tree:
    • You wouldn’t need to plant a young tree and wait many years until you had those specific apples. By grafting, you create a new hybrid apple that combines the best traits of both.
  5. To preserve rare or unique apple varieties:
    • Grafting is a way to propagate rare or heirloom apple varieties, helping to preserve them for future generations.

What is Grafting?

Grafting an apple tree involves combining a scion with a rootstock. The scion is a young shoot or bud from a desired apple variety. While the rootstock is the the lower part of the tree that provides the root system. Here we will outline the steps to how to graft an apple tree.

how to graft apple tree: cleft graft

Types of Grafting

There are several types of grafting techniques used for apple trees. Here are some of the most common ones:

Whip Grafting

This is a simple grafting technique also known as whip and tongue grafting! It involves cutting both the rootstock and the scion wood at an angle, then joining the two pieces together. You then wrap the joined pieces together with grafting tape to hold them in place while they heal. We will describe the steps in more detail below.

whip graft

Cleft Grafting

Cleft grafting: When the rootstock is larger than the scion wood, you can use this technique. You make a small, V-shaped cut in the top of the rootstock. Then you cut the scion wood to fit into the cleft. Afterwards you secure the two pieces with grafting tape or similar material.

cleft grafting

Bud Grafting

Bud grafting: This technique is also known as chip budding. It involves transplanting a single bud from the scion wood onto the rootstock. We will describe the steps in more detail below.

how to graft an apple tree: bud graft

Bark Grafting

Bark grafting: This technique you can use for older trees and when the rootstock is larger than the scion wood. You first remove a strip of bark from the rootstock. Then you cut the scion wood to fit into the space created by the missing bark. Afterwards you secure the two pieces with grafting tape.

how to graft an apple tree: bark grafting

Inlay Grafting

  • Inlay grafting: This technique is used for trees with damaged or missing bark. A small, rectangular section of bark is removed from the rootstock, and a matching section is removed from the scion wood. The scion wood is then inserted into the space created by the missing bark on the rootstock, and the two pieces are secured with grafting tape or similar material.

Bridge Grafting

  • Bridge grafting: This technique is used to save a damaged or dying tree. Small scion wood branches are grafted onto the tree above the damaged area, creating a “bridge” that allows the tree to continue to grow and produce fruit.

Each grafting technique has its advantages and disadvantages, and the choice of which technique to use depends on factors like the size and age of the trees, the desired outcome, and the grower’s level of experience.

How to Graft an Apple Tree

Whip Grafting

Materials Needed:

  • Rootstock
  • Scion from the desired apple variety
  • Pruning shears or a sharp knife
  • Grafting tape
  • Wax or grafting compound
  • Rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide

Choose the Scion Wood

Select a healthy, disease-free branch from a mature apple tree that has the desired characteristics you want to graft onto the rootstock. Cut the branch into 8 to 10-inch long pieces, each with three to four buds.

Choose the Rootstock

Select a healthy, disease-free rootstock that is compatible with the scion wood. You can find out more about specific rootstocks here.

Prepare the Scion Wood

Cut the scion wood at a 45-degree angle, just below a bud, and trim away any leaves or buds from the bottom half of the cutting.

whip graft

Prepare the Rootstock

Cut the rootstock at a 45-degree angle, about 6 inches above the ground, and remove any side shoots or branches from the base of the tree.

Make the Graft

Insert the scion wood into the rootstock, making sure the cambium layers of the two pieces match up. Use a grafting tape or rubber band to hold the pieces firmly together.

Seal the Graft

Apply a grafting wax or sealant to the graft union to protect it from pests and disease.

Care for the Tree

Water the tree regularly and protect it from extreme temperatures and pests. As the graft grows, remove any shoots that emerge from the rootstock below the graft union to prevent competition.

Grafting can be a bit tricky, so it may take some practice to get the hang of it. It’s also important to note that not all apple varieties are compatible with all rootstocks, so do some research to make sure you’re choosing the right combination for your location and desired outcome.

When to do Whip Grafting?

You usually do whip grafting in the early spring, before the apple tree starts to leaf out. This is because the tree is still dormant during this time, and the grafting process will not disrupt the tree’s growth. The ideal time to whip graft apple trees is when the daytime temperature is consistently above freezing, and the soil is workable.

It’s important to note that the exact timing of whip grafting may vary depending on your location and the specific apple varieties you are working with. As a general rule, you should do whip grafting before the buds on the tree start to swell, and the tree begins to break dormancy. In most areas, this is typically in late March to early April. However, it’s always a good idea to check with your local Cooperative Extension Service or a knowledgeable local nursery for specific recommendations based on your location and growing conditions.

How to Graft an Apple Tree: Bud Grafting

Collect Scion Wood

  • Choose a healthy branch from the desired apple variety, and select a bud from it that is firm, plump, and well-formed. Cut a small piece of wood (about 1 inch long) that includes the bud and a small amount of wood on either side of it. Keep the scion wood moist by wrapping it in a damp paper towel or storing it in a plastic bag.

Prepare the Rootstock

  • Choose a healthy rootstock that is about the same diameter as the scion wood. Make a vertical T-shaped cut on the rootstock by making a downward cut about 1 inch long, and then a horizontal cut across the top of the vertical cut. Gently loosen the bark on both sides of the vertical cut to create a flap of bark.

Insert the Bud

  • Remove the bud from the scion wood by cutting it off just below the bud with a sharp knife. Carefully slide the bud under the flap of bark on the rootstock, making sure the bud is snug and in contact with the cambium layer (the thin layer of cells just under the bark that produces new growth). The bud should be facing outward, with the cut end pointing down.

Secure the Bud

  • Wrap the bud with grafting tape or a similar material, making sure to cover the entire bud and the exposed cut on the scion wood. This will protect the bud and help it to heal and grow.

Wait for Growth:

  • Check the bud regularly over the next few weeks to see if it has taken. The bud will begin to grow within a few weeks if it has been successful, and the grafting tape can be removed after a few months once the bud has started to grow.

When to do Bud Grafting?

  • It’s important to note that bud grafting should be done during the growing season when the tree is actively growing, usually in late spring or early summer. It’s also important to keep the grafting materials moist and cool until they are ready to be used, and to handle them gently to avoid damaging the bud or scion wood. With care and attention, bud grafting can be a successful and effective way to propagate apple trees.

What Age to Graft an Apple Tree?

The age of the apple tree is an important factor when it comes to grafting. Generally, apple trees can be grafted when they are one to two years old, but it’s important to wait until the tree is strong enough to handle the stress of the grafting process.

It’s also important to choose the right rootstock for your apple tree, as different rootstocks have different characteristics that can affect the growth and productivity of the tree. Some rootstocks are more vigorous and can produce larger trees, while others are more dwarfing and can produce smaller, more manageable trees. The rootstock you choose will depend on factors such as the desired size of the tree, the soil conditions, and the climate in your area.

If you are new to grafting, it’s a good idea to start with young apple trees that are one to two years old. These trees are still relatively small and manageable. Therefore you will be less likely to damage them by the grafting process. As you gain experience and confidence, you can move on to grafting older and more established trees.

It’s also important to remember that successful grafting requires patience and attention to detail. Even if you graft a young tree successfully, it may take several years for the tree to mature and start producing fruit. With care and attention, however, grafting can be a rewarding and enjoyable way to propagate apple trees and produce high-quality fruit.

History of Grafting

People have been grafting apple trees for thousands of years! The technique was first developed in ancient China. People used it to propagate fruit trees and improve crop yields.

Then, the ancient Greeks and Romans also used grafting to cultivate a wide variety of fruit trees, including apples. In fact, the Romans grafted extensively! As a result, they had large quantities of fruit and developed new varieties.

During the Middle Ages, monasteries and other religious orders played a significant role in the development of grafting techniques. Monks used grafting to propagate fruit trees and develop new varieties. Therefore they improved agricultural productivity and supported local communities.

Much later, in the 17th century, English horticulturist William Lawson wrote a book on grafting. This book helped to popularize the technique in Europe. As a result, grafting became a common practice among gardeners and farmers. In fact, we continue to graft today to produce high-quality fruit and develop new varieties!

most disease resistant apple trees

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